Modern Pharisees do exist. But applying that label in a careless and reckless manner often ends up striking at the wrong target. And sometimes the real Pharisees end up being the ones who hypocritically use the pejorative against others. Scripture teaches us enough to readily identify Pharisees and pharisaical culture in modern churches. Even so, engaging in name-calling is a poor way to invest that discernment. That knowledge can be used far more profitably in admonishing the Pharisees we meet, avoiding places where pharisaical culture is dominant, and repenting of pharisaical tendencies in our own lives.
The odds are good that someone, somewhere, at some point has called you a Pharisee. The odds are even better that you’ve slapped that label on someone else.
It’s no surprise that the name “Pharisee” carries a leprous stigma. They’re the villains virtually every time they appear in the pages of Scripture. Jesus never had anything good to say about them. And their heavy-handed, legalistic authority made them a scourge to all of Israel—even other pious Jews.
In the evangelical vernacular, “Pharisee” is the umbrella term used to describe the gatekeepers of Jewish religion in the time of Christ. There were different ranks and factions—Scribes, Lawyers, Rabbis, Sadducees, Pharisees, and others—but all of them collectively represented the pharisaical religious system.
However, in modern usage the term cuts a much wider swath. And it’s that haphazard use that’s in focus for us today. God’s people need to break the habit of “playing the Pharisee card”—particularly to deflect confrontation or dismiss a rebuke. The fact is, there are modern Pharisees lurking among the church today. We do need to be able to spot them. But we also need to be careful how we deploy this potent pejorative.
To that end, let’s consider three biblical earmarks of these corrupt characters.
If You Supplement Scripture with Man-Made Rules, You Might Be a Pharisee
The Pharisees were far more fixated with enforcing their own pharisaical legal code than they were with administering God’s law. They did this by adding mountains of unbiblical fine print to biblical commands [hyperlink to Legalism and Sanctification] as well as inventing their own doctrines apart from Scripture:
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:1–9)
The Pharisees had developed a tradition whereby people were encouraged to dedicate material possessions to God by giving them to the Jewish religious leaders. The inviolability of that vow caused it to supersede the fifth commandment—honoring your mother and father—because any dedicated wealth was forbidden as a means of financially supporting one’s parents. As John MacArthur points out, the implicit guilt of the Pharisees was unmistakable:
The scribes and Pharisees knew the Ten Commandments well and could recite them easily from memory. They were the most educated of all Jewish men and were considered the supreme authorities on Scripture as well as tradition. They could not possibly have failed to see that this tradition directly violated God’s commandment to honor one’s father and mother. They knowingly replaced God’s specific command with their own contradicting tradition. 
The rules and prohibitions of the ancient Pharisees are not without their modern parallels. They bear undeniable similarities with the fundamentalist denominations we see today. If you attend a fundamentalist church it won’t take long before you are confronted with a list of extrabiblical dos and don’ts—rules that carry the weight of essential doctrine. In fact, many of these rules find their way into the doctrinal statements of fundamentalist churches—prohibitions concerning drinking, smoking, dancing, tattoos, piercings, and unacceptable musical genres.
If You’re a Liberal, You’re Definitely a Sadducee
Lest any liberals gain some smug pleasure out of pointing their accusatory finger at the “Fundies” they despise so much, think again. Liberals only avoid the Pharisee label because they’re actually something much worse: Sadducees.