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Many of the Pharisees were probably great teachers and skilled speakers. I’m sure many were charismatic, skilled communicators. But by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Pharisees, on the whole, were killing the culture around them spiritually. Jesus had a lot of work to do just to unwire people from the performance-driven, legalistic trap of pharisaism.

I’ve been guilty of preaching like a Pharisee before, and as I review my sermons from the past, I cringe a bit as I peruse certain periods of my ministry when I placed undue burdens on my listeners in the name of “preaching the Word.” I’m writing out of my own past tendencies (and present tendencies I’m still trying to snuff out) as well as out of what I observe across the landscape of evangelical preaching.

The following tips will work to draw a moderate-sized crowd. A pulpit characterized by negativity and belligerence will draw a moderate-sized crowd of masochists who draw energy to go on another day by being beaten up spiritually. But it won’t make Jesus-like, craveable disciples. So use them at your own risk.

How do you preach like a Pharisee?

Preach Your Opinions Instead of the Absolute Truth of Scripture

Exalting your own opinions about extra-biblical issues as though obedience to them is equivalent to obeying Scripture is dangerous. It creates the very burdens on the backs of people that Jesus came to remove. It also hurts the trust of your hearers. Consider my hero, W. A. Criswell, who once promoted segregation as a biblical mandate only to repent and change his policy later.

His opinion about a cultural issue caused many to question his credibility. Thankfully, he had such a high respect for the authority of Scripture that he changed course, publicly and with apology. Besides, you’re probably wrong more than you think you are.

Promote Moralism Over Grace-Based Living

Your role is to present biblical truth, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the lives of your hearers with the power of God’s revelation. Your role is not to make people behave. Repentance has to do with changing the mind and belief system so that behaviors follow, but when we promote better behavior, we put the cart before the horse and fail to exalt the grace that enables us to live differently.

Make People Feel Guilty Enough to Make Short-term Commitments

Guilt is a terrible motivator. Yes, we sinners must come to grips with our sin by means of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring that conviction. I can get people to give more money, sign up to serve in a ministry, or go share the gospel by making them feel guilty about not giving or doing enough. 

Or I can empower them to give, serve, and share by inspiring them with hope. God dangles rewards in front of us in eternity as motivation for action rather than feelings of guilt over our sinful past. I owe Him everything, but He doesn’t remind me of that. He simply challenges me to go forward in hope and for the pure enjoyment of Him and His grace.

Beat People Into Skepticism

Jesus once told the Pharisees that they had a tendency to make people “twice the child of hell as they were before.” What did He mean? People had come to the Pharisees, as religious leaders, to find the ultimate fulfillment God could offer. What they received was a long list of rules that were impossible to keep.

After their repeated failures, they would finally turn away in disgust and it would be a long time before they listened to another religious leader again. Sound familiar? My heart breaks for the victims of spiritually abusive churches that have little understanding or compassion for the hurts and problems of people in pain.

Dress the Part

If you wear a three-piece suit and cuff links because you’re into that sort of thing or because it appeals to the community you’re trying to reach, more power to you. But if you just like to wear the “preacher” uniform and appear lofty and ministerial, repent now. I get a bit nauseated when I see a leader who has that “preacher strut.” I won’t describe it — you’ll know it when you see it.

It’s usually the result of my desire to impress my peers outweighing my desire to connect with the lost. This is not a rant against “dressing up.” It’s just a warning against trying to “dress the part” of the superior religious leader.

More than ever, a skeptical, broken world needs our authentic, truth-saturated, grace-based, Spirit-filled message of the cross and the resurrection. And they need to see it embodied in our lives as much as they need to hear it proclaimed from the podium.

George Durham of Paynes Chapel
December 21, 2012
Your Comments
Jb Bryant
December 21, 2012
@Zachary - Thanks for the dialog. I have never been part of so-called "high church" or liturgical church tradition, so it's helpful for me to understand. Vestments are outside my realm of experience. As a child, in the 70's, my pastor wore a suit and tie. As a young adult my pastor wore a sport coat and no tie. My current pastor variously wears slacks and shirt, sweater, etc. I preach occasionally and typically dress similarly to the rest of the congregation to which I'm speaking (tie, no tie, slacks, jeans, sweater, t-shirt, whatever). This is because I dress in all of those ways in the rest of my life and genuinely enjoy the varied styles. It is very good and helpful for me to dialog with someone of a different tradition. I certainly do not sit in criticism of vestments or any other formality as long as they do not elevate one person over another. Elevation or drawing attention to oneself would concern me, but clothing choices do not. Again, thanks for teaching me.
Zachary Bartels
December 21, 2012
@JB, I'm going to have to strenuously disagree with you and the author of this piece on that issue. I would submit that wearing ANYTHING (whether vestments or a suit or an ironic T-shirt) simply "because it appeals to the community you're trying to reach" is more or less a lateral move from wearing these same items in order to "feel lofty and ministerial." Both miss the point. Of course, neither of those options is the real reason for vestments. And, of course, I could easily continue your litany of rationalizing modern church conventions (all of which I agree with, by the way) by saying, "Vestments are for setting apart the minister in his duties and certainly the early church did that."
Jb Bryant
December 21, 2012
@Zachary - My focus was not on whether we do things or use things that they early church didn't do or use. My focus was on the purpose of those things. Pews are for sitting, and I assume the early church sat. Hymnals help us sing, and the early church sang. Pulpits hold preaching notes, and the early church preached (though I doubt their preaching was anything like ours...but that is a different conversation). Bound copies of God's word help us each have a copy of scripture to study, and we know the early church read and studied scripture. Those things serve a purpose that was in line with the purposes of Jesus and His early followers. Vestments *can* be a parallel to the 3-piece suit and cuff links the author wrote about that are for the purpose of "wear[ing] the 'preacher' uniform and appear[ing] lofty and ministerial." If that is the purpose of vestments, I see no evidence that that is in line with the purposes of Jesus or his early followers ? I think it is clear that their values were exactly the opposite of that. On the other hand, to re-quote the author again, "If you wear [vestments] because you?re into that sort of thing or because it appeals to the community you?re trying to reach, more power to you." Years ago I knew a pastor - one of the humblest, most accessible and 'real,' most Christ-like men I have known - whose denominational traditions demanded he wear vestments. I'm guessing he may even have been disciplined by his denomination had he abandoned them. He told me this: "I only wear vestments because they are required of me. Then I spend every hour of my life that I'm not in the pulpit undoing any damage they may have caused."
Bill Williams
December 20, 2012
@Zachary, I can't speak for either JB or the author, but the way I understand them, I don't believe either of them are advocating doing away with vestments, necessarily. But the question JB poses is quite useful in helping us to discern between what are the essentials of the Gospel, and what are merely traditions of men. And a big problem with the Pharisees, as well as with many of us, is that they were prone to hold to their traditions as if they were essential, and used their traditions as a way to distinguish between who was a TRUE follower of God, and who wasn't. Mark 7:1-23 comes to mind, where the Pharisees criticized Jesus for not washing his hands according to the "traditions of the elders." I think this idea is what the author had in mind when he spoke about dressing in order to "appear lofty and ministerial." As in many other things, it is the intent behind the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, that determines whether or not one is a Pharisee. So, as long as one's intention is sincere, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with vestments, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with pews, pulpits, hymnals, or bound copies of the Bible. But NONE of these are ESSENTIAL. God's word can be preached without any of these.
Steve Malson of Mason Community Church
December 20, 2012
We live in a unique time when the pharisaical 'uniform' of a preacher can be anything from skinny jeans to vestaments. Dressing to appropriately represent Christ (Ambassador's uniform) can vary depending on context, but in recent years the 'strut' has been displayed by peacocks in suits and peacocks dressed like their kids (or grandkids). Paul's version of appeal would seem to encourage a continually refreshed look at attire . . . music . . . etc.
Richard Martin
December 20, 2012
I'm probably 'mis-reading' this whole thing, but sounds to me like the writer (Mr. Cox) is 'prcticing what he's preaching against'--- preaching OBEDIENCE is not necessarily same thing as 'preaching like a pharisee'... as for 'what to wear', well I suggest we all go the white robe route.... seems that's the garment of choice in Revelation.....oops. mis-spelled 'practicing'
Richard Martin
December 20, 2012
I'm probably 'mis-leading' this whole thing, but sounds to me like the writer (Mr. Cox) is 'practicing what he's preaching against'--- preaching OBEDIENCE is not necessarily same thing as 'preaching like a pharisee'... as for 'what to wear', well I suggest we all go the white robe route.... seems that's the garment of choice in Revelation.....oops. mis-spelled 'practicing'
Richard Martin
December 20, 2012
I'm probably 'mis-leading' this whole thing, but sounds to me like the writer (Mr. Cox) is 'precticing what he's preaching against'--- preaching OBEDIENCE is not necessarily same thing as 'preaching like a pharisee'... as for 'what to wear', well I suggest we all go the white robe route.... seems that's the garment of choice in Revelation.
Zachary Bartels
December 20, 2012
@JB Bryant, I totally get it now.. And I propose that we do away with pews, pulpits, hymnals, and bound copies of God's Word for the same reason...
Jb Bryant
December 20, 2012
@Zachary Bartels -Sorry, I left an extra word in there when I edited my comment. Here's how it should have read: I would guess, with me, [the author] would question "What purpose do they serve" and "Is that a purpose our Lord or any of His first disciples showed they cared about?" I understand the traditional purpose of vestments. But, in line with the message of this article, is their traditional purpose in line with the form of Christianity that the New Testament portrays? Can we find anything in the life of Christ or in Paul or Peter, for instance, that would justify them? I realize this could turn into a debate, and that's not my purpose. I was simply supposing an answer to the question you asked in your comment, which was what the author might think of vestments.

December 20, 2012
I believe in absolutely in Grace. I believe in conviction of the Holy Ghost. I believe that it is not necessarily the message that changes people but the encounter with Christ as a result of the message. However I think we need to bring a balance to the whole issue. The church in America is here it is today because they have failed to hit the nail on the head. We now have liberal, conservative Pentecostalism. By no means am I saying that anyone can make heaven by works. I am not as well avocation heaven without works bit I am talking about working faith. There is a time to present Christ to people. There is a time for people to develop relationship with Christ. You do not follow altar call with preaching on works. However, by the time a man accepts Christ, grow to get baptized and become a worker in the church and we still cannot specifically address their immoral dressing by call spade a spade and not farming implement, it?s a a matter of time. Growing up in faith, I had the privilege of mentors who talked to me straight. There were things I was doing which they directly address without condemning me. They just introduced me to the new kingdom value system. Sanctification was laid bare and I went for it. At not time did they tell me that God gave up on me because of my shortcoming at the same time, they did not play safe by leaving the Holy Ghost to give me the sermon about my compromising and old life style. We now have celebrated Gospel Musicians and Pastors admitting over and over again that they do not know how to break off their life style. The effect of this is far reaching. We now explain our spiritual slumber with honest mistakes. of course the song is :don?t judge me. Yes we should not judge people . 1Cr 2:15 But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. but we can judge the works that people do. Lets tell a Married Deacon in extra marital affair that he is playing into the hands of the enemy. There must be discipline in the church. Paul did not leave peter to the Holy Ghost when he was avoided association with the gentile just becuase of the presence of the Jew. Act 8:20 But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. I stand for the balance. God will not give up on people once the person is still on this planet earth. God will not turn His back on any one who comes to him in repentance. True. At the same time when Christ is formed in us, after our conversion, we must strengthen our brethren. Peter did not remain permanently in his state of inconsistency. He was filled with the Holy Ghost until he became full and His lives never remain the same. Someone must maintain the standard to inspire others. Someone must show the way by the life style. Someone must show that we can move from what is good to what is acceptable and to what is the perfect will of God
Zachary Bartels
December 20, 2012
JB Bryant, I read your question four times and can't make sense of it. "Disciples took showed.." WHAT?! If you are unaware of the purpose of vestments, a little internet research could quickly enlighten you.
Jb Bryant
December 20, 2012
@Zachary Bartels - You queried: "I wonder what Rev. Cox thinks of vestments..." I would guess, with me, he would question "What purpose do they serve" and "Is that a purpose our Lord or any of His first disciples took showed they cared about?"
Zachary Bartels
December 20, 2012
I wonder what Rev. Cox thinks of vestments...
Kenneth Macari
December 20, 2012
This is why I continue the PCUSA traditional pulpit robe and liturgical seasonal stole. I totally agree with my military colleague on dress. In the African-American and Asian church traditions, the preacher must set the standard. It bothers me that too many church groups that appeal to young caucasians dress down to impress the other way around!
Gerald Graham
December 20, 2012
I was a youth Pastor for almost 5 years and became the Pastor of a church and have been for almost 8. I was given the advice to dress as expected. I learned quickly that everyone has different expectations. So how do I dress? It doesn't matter. No matter how I dressed, casual as a youth Pastor, or with a suit and tie, people have come to the understanding that in our church there is no dress code. Only conviction. And that, by the Holy Spirit. Those who feel like dressing up do and those who don't, don't. But everyone dresses pretty respectably. No matter how they dress I am just glad they are here!
Peter Solomon
December 20, 2012
An interesting article. Behavior always follows belief.
Leslye Haller
December 20, 2012
The preacher strut makes me crazy too, as do preachers who have forgotten that they are no closer to God than the people sitting in the pews of the churches they were sent to serve. Merry Christmas to all!
Eileen Marshall
December 20, 2012
Wonderful to hear a Grace message taught, thank-you brother
Eileen Marshall
December 20, 2012
Wonderful to hear a Grace message taught, thank-you brother
Liked the whole article but the dressing part. Two things: The last Pastor of this Church I am currently at quit because he wanted to be "casual" in the pulpit, whereas the people were traditional and expected him to dress to preach. I'm retired Air Force and I was often told "remember you represent the United States when you go out. Dress well." When you stand in the Pulpit preaching God's Word you represent Him. Dress well. A preaching in shorts and flip flops or holy jeans is not impressing anyone. There's no indication Jesus dressed like a bum when He went out sowing seed. Dress well. You represent the Lord. Second, dress so as to not offend your audience. I have seen Youth Ministers who dress like refugees because they think it helps them reach the kids. Kids need guidance. The need not another friend, but someone who would love them and help them. If you went to the doctor with something wrong with you would you be impressed if a "dude" dressed in a stained shirt and ragged jeans popped in and said "Yo dude, give me sum skin"? Would you like to see a surgeon who couldn't pull up his pants, but wore his fruit of the looms 1 foot out to be "kool"? Not me. If my car broke down I want the man driving the tow truck looking like he knows who he is, not some drunkard from skid row. Can preachers dress casually? Surely, but decently - and only if it will not interfere with the preaching of the Word. Surely, but neatly, realizing you represent Jesus Christ. As to the "preacher strut" I see it everywhere - clothing has nothing to do with it. That's just human pride, the same pride that puts a smiling picture of an author on every article and book written. Pride and Pharisaic behavior is evident in us all. I wish love were as evident.
Daniel Leavitt
December 20, 2012
"That preacher strut". Drives me crazy.

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