So much of the discord we experience in discussions today happens because we talk past each other, rather than with each other. We use the same words, but with different meanings behind them. Making this all the more difficult is that much of this definition-musical-chairs is willful. We use a pejorative against someone else without caring what it really means; we only know about the negative connotation, and if we can get that to stick to someone else then by golly that’s enough.

In setting out to write his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis necessarily had to define exactly what it meant to be Christian. When people took issue against him for this, he explained that the word has to mean something – otherwise, it’s completely useless. He used the word “gentleman” to further illustrate this idea.

C. S. Lewis

“People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?”: or “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ than some who do?” Now, this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

I have occasion to think on Lewis’ argument quite often. We “spiritualize” a great many words in the gospel. We do so in order to compliment others or to show disdain for others, or simply to ride a gospel hobby horse a bit harder than others might. Whatever the reason, we do it all the time.






Unfortunately, “Pharisee” has fallen into this category, and I’ve recently seen it more frequently applied to faithful Latter-day Saints who wade into gospel discussions on Twitter and elsewhere.

What do people mean when they say call someone a Pharisee? In the end, I can’t ascertain exactly what someone else is thinking, though I know they mean it as an insult.

Here’s one example:

When asked to explain what he meant, he snidely directed the questioner to “do your own research” and provided these four criteria:

Are these the definitive qualities of a Pharisee? Or…are they simply a critique he has of others and he’s decided that the Pharisitic shoe fits closely enough to warrant the negative connotation and hopefully no one will look all that closely?

The Errors of the Pharisees

The Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary tells us the Pharisees “prided themselves on their strict observance of the law,” and “they upheld the authority of oral tradition as of equal value with the written law.” It adds, “the tendency of their teaching was to reduce religion to the observance of a multiplicity of ceremonial rules and to encourage self-sufficiency and spiritual pride.” It provides that the Savior’s condemnations of the Pharisees can be found in Matthew 23, Mark 7, and Luke 11.

I can see, easily enough, how people connect the dots the way they do. A defining characteristic of the Pharisees was their strict observance to the law, and this is the ‘flaw’ frequently criticized today. (Above, it was framed as “refusing mercy and prejudiciously [not a word, ironically enough] demanding justice” and “refusing to mourn with those that mourn, kicking while down.”) Surely those today who lack flexibility, those who prioritize strictness, are as deserving of the Savior’s condemnation of the Pharisees of old.

And yet…

What of Nephi, who so constantly admonished his brothers that they repeatedly tried to murder him and he eventually had to flee?

What of King Benjamin, who taught his people to “keep the commandments of the Lord, in all things” (Mosiah 2:13), and warned them to be wary of “open rebellion against God” (Mosiah 2:37)

What of the countless others who teach of exact obedience? Were they Pharisees?

The answer, of course, is “no.” The Savior told us very clearly what he condemned about the Pharisees and their sect.

They do not do what they teach. They bind together heavy burdens that are difficult to bear and then lay them on the shoulders of others, but they are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:3-4)

“Every work that they perform they do to be seen by others…. They love to have the prominent places at dinners and the first seat in the synagogues and to be greeted at the markets and to be called ‘Rabbi’.” (Matthew 23:5-7)

You close the kingdom of heaven to others, and you do not enter, and for those who are entering, you do not permit them to enter.” (Matthew 23:13)

“You are blind…. and [you] neglect the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:19, 23)

“You purify the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greed and lack self-control…You look righteous to others on the outside, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25, 28)

Some of [the prophets] you kill and crucify, and some you flog in your synagogues and pursue them from city to city.” (Matthew 23:34)

(These quotes are all from Thomas Wayment’s translation for Latter-day Saints, which I am enjoying very much.)

The things to be concerned about are not obedience or some vague third-party assessment of inflexibility. It’s pride, hypocrisy, or burdening the people with things that ultimately lead them from the Savior, our true source of healing and salvation.

For Our Day

During a speech at BYU, Elder Bednar taught faculty:

During discussions in the Quorum of the Twelve, President Boyd K. Packer often would ask, “Therefore, what?”

I understood his question to mean, “So what spiritually significant difference will this idea, proposal, or course of action make in the lives of Church members? Will it actually bless those whom we serve?”

“President Packer was inviting us to consider the value and long-term implications of the matter about which we were counseling. I have found the question “Therefore, what?” to be most helpful in focusing my thinking about an issue and in identifying the things that matter most.

When we take “Pharisee” for what it actually means, the idea that modern-day Pharisees are as prevalent as some suggest is utterly laughable. But! Taking for granted that they’re around every corner: “Therefore, what?”


How concerned is the Book of Mormon? Mormon tells us he saw our day, and certainly, that factored into how he wrote the book that bears his name. What are the most prevalent warnings found in the Book of Mormon? I see Mormon warn of pride, and of the cancer of priestcraft and secret combinations. I see repeated the promise, throughout the entire book, that he who keeps the commandments prospers in the land, and those who do not keep the commandments are cut off – cut off like Mormon’s own people, the Nephites. I see it consistently point individuals to live the gospel and seek after the Savior. Perhaps you’ve noticed other, different focuses.

The Prophet Mormon

How concerned is General Conference? Those of us who sustain the leaders of the Church believe they truly are prophets, seers, and revelators, with all that that entails. What are the most prevalent warnings found in conference? In April, I heard warnings about following the guidelines found in the Proclamation on the Family, about not delaying repentance, and about a careful (rather than casual) application of the gospel. Perhaps you noticed other, different focuses.

I’m not hearing a lot of uproar from our leaders about Pharisees. The one mention of “Pharisee” in April was not a condemnation, but an example of a group of people who, among others, the Savior reaches out to. There was no mention of Pharisees in all of 2018.

Should we care about being better? Of course. Should we emulate the Pharisees? Of course not! Are there modern-day Pharisees all around us?


In any case, and whatever our portion of the myriad flaws possible, the prescription is the same. We all need to better apply the gospel in our lives and allow the Savior to change who we are.

In the meantime, let us be concerned with what Mormon and the brethren are concerned with, and stop with the use of scriptural pejoratives that have no real meaning.

(And if you don’t plan to stop, at least use one with a kick. I suggest “brood of vipers.”)

Supplemental Reading:

Obedience Brings Blessings” – President Thomas S. Monson, April 2013

When the Lord Commands” – Elder Bruce A. Carlson, April 2010

You can follow Danny on Twitter @backfromthat.

1 thought on “The Leaven of the Pharisees

Leave a Reply