The New Testament shows us that in the time of Jesus there were some devout and righteous individuals – men such as Nicodemus – in the religious group known as the Pharisees (John 3:1-2, John 19:39); but Jesus frequently reproached members of this group for their evident self-righteousness. Perhaps Christ's best-known saying in this regard was: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Last year, a fascinating nationwide study of self-identified Christians was directed by David Kinnaman and John Burke, for Barna Group. The goal of this survey was “to determine whether Christians have the actions and attitude of Jesus as they interact with others or if they are more akin to the beliefs and behaviors of Pharisees, the self-righteous sect of religious leaders described in the New Testament.”
That’s a pretty wild survey idea to begin with, but the results were surprising. The study was carefully constructed to ask questions which revealed whether the respondents exhibited self-righteous attitudes or actions in their lives. Amazingly, the findings revealed that many “self-identified Christians in the U.S. are characterized by having the attitudes and actions researchers identified as Pharisaical.“ Just over half of the nation’s Christians (51%) met the criteria for being Pharisaical.
On the other hand, only 14% of self-identified Christians in the US —just one out of every seven Christians— fit the pattern of actions and attitudes that Barna researchers found to be consistent with those of Jesus.
But that’s not all of the bad news. Somewhere in the middle of those two groups are Christians who exhibit a mix of the characteristics surveyed. Just over one-fifth of US Christians (21%) were found to display Christ-like attitudes, but also displayed Pharisaical actions. Another 14% of the survey’s respondents were defined as being Christ-like in their actions, but motivated by self-righteous attitudes.
It’s a fascinating study, and you can find the study report here. Barna does great work and they deserve a lot of credit for this study. The survey is eye opening, to say the least, and should represent a wake-up call for the Christian community. Unfortunately, the study suggests a paraphrase of the famous saying of Pogo: “We have found the Pharisees – and the Pharisees are us!”