New Study Suggests U.S. Christians Are More Like Pharisees Than Christ

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A new Barna study examined the extent to which Christians in the U.S. display the actions and attitudes of Jesus as opposed to the actions and attitudes of Pharisees.

In a new study, the Barna Group examined the extent to which Christians in the U.S. display the actions and attitudes of Jesus as opposed to the actions and attitudes of Pharisees. Researchers developed 20 agree/disagree statements and presented them to more than 1,000 study participants to determine how closely they resembled Christ or the Pharisees.

Jesus-like actions included listening to others tell their story before witnessing, choosing to often spend time with non-Christians, and influencing multiple people to consider following Christ. Jesus-like attitudes included seeing God-given value in everyone and feeling compassion for those who do not know God. Pharisaical actions included telling people that God’s rules are paramount in their lives, avoiding spending time with homosexuals, and preferring to serve people who attend the church rather than those outside of it. Attitudes like the Pharisees included refusing to take responsibility for those who keep doing wrong, feeling grateful to be a Christian when observing others’ failures and flaws, and feeling it necessary to stand against those who are opposed to Christian values.

The survey found that 51 percent those surveyed qualified as tending toward self-righteousness rather than Christlikeness. Just 14 percent represented the attitudes and actions consistent with those of Christ. About one-fifth of Christians surveyed (21 percent) are Christlike in attitude but like Pharisees in action. Evangelical Christians were slightly more likely (23 percent) to be Christ-like in attitude and action, but were also likely to be Pharisaical in attitude but Christlike in behavior.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, commented on the creation of a “Christ-like” scale: “Our intent is to create some new discussion about the intangible aspects of following and representing Jesus. Obviously, survey research, by itself, cannot fully measure someone’s ‘Christ-likeness’ or ‘Pharisee-likeness.’ But the study is meant to identify baseline qualities of Jesus, like empathy, love, and a desire to share faith with others — or the resistance to such ideals in the form of self-focused hypocrisy. The statements are based on the biblical record given in the Gospels and in the Epistles and our team worked closely with a leading pastor, John Burke, to develop the survey questions.”

“Many Christians are more concerned with what they call unrighteousness than they are with self-righteousness,” Kinnaman also said. “It’s a lot easier to point fingers at how the culture is immoral than it is to confront Christians in their comfortable spiritual patterns. Perhaps pastors and teachers might take another look at how and what they communicate. Do people somehow get the message that the ‘right action’ is more important than the ‘right attitude’? Do church leaders have a tendency to focus more on tangible results, like actions, because those are easier to see and measure than attitudes?”

View two interesting infographics regarding this study at The Barna Group site.

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  • Rich

    Though I would tend to agree with this, I believe that a 1000 person is not an accurate study and misleading.

  • Paul

    Interesting. Though what may be more interesting is that the church in the rest of the world views us like the Corinthians, not like the Pharisees. I think we have a weird hybrid going on where in many ways it’s a Pharisee culture because of our past Christian culture and some of the lingo and expectations, but Corinthian behavior in terms of how we actually live.

  • amos8

    “David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, commented on the creation of a “Christ-like” scale…”

    Wait a minute, isn’t that essentially what the Pharisees are blamed for? Didn’t they create a new scale — IN THEIR EYES … What THEY wanted to establish as what was right — and which Jesus condemned them for doing? [Matt 15; Mk 7]

    Also, this is precisely what liberalism/the emergent church is doing? They are creating and exalting a”new scale” [i.e. what the “culture” wants or feels is good] OVER Scripture!

    And then, to top it off, if anyone disagrees with their new scale, if anyone objects to this new and exalted authority (which undermines God’s Word) they often will judge, attack, condemn, and minimize them as Pharisees (or Legalists, “Haters,” “Fundamentalists”).

    Or they remain silent, even though they know this all to be absurd, self-defeating, deceptive, and harmful to the body of Christ. Why? Because “it’s all okay, because we are against those hateful Pharisees!!! This justifies our Pharisaical behavior and beliefs!”

    And how we even have our own “research” to back up or judgmentalism!

  • Jose

    Interesting. Timely. Thought-provoking. I will not be the first to cast a stone.

  • Joe Rhoads

    Why is choosing to hear someone’s story before sharing Christ with them considered a Christlike attitude? By contrast, this must mean not listening to someone’s story before sharing Christ with them is a pharisee-like attitude. Additionally, Jesus stood against the Pharisees because they stood against Christian values (like grace). The article mentioned that a pharisee like attitude was “telling people God’s rules are paramount in their lives.” Have you read the Sermon on the Mount? Three chapters of Jesus telling people that God’s rules are paramount in their lives. And He ends His sermon with, “If you don’t build your life on what I’ve said, you life will come to destruction. if you build your life on what I’ve said, your life will be save” (my loose paraphrase, sorry). According to Barna, Jesus held some pharisee like attitudes.

    • Peter Dohnt

      Hi Joe

      I hear what you are saying – truth is truth – but to say Jesus held pharisee like attitudes is missing it.

      Jesus – was/is/will be – righteous (along with being truth).

      The pharisees (although they spoke truth with reference to the law) were self-righteous and therefore short of the truth.

      Yes they both said – paraphrase – “this is the way to do it” – but only one of them is righteous and true. This is the one we should represent (he said, possibly phariseicly :) )

      • Joe Rhoads

        I’m not saying Jesus held pharisee like attitudes. I’m saying that if you hold to Barna’s line of question of what is more Christlike and what is more pharisee like, then, according to Barna’s own standards, Jesus held pharisee like attitudes.
        My point is: how did Barna determine that some of the attitudes to be Christlike and how did Barna determine that some of the attitudes to be pharisee like.
        For example, the first attitude listed is: listening to others tell their story before witnessing is a Jesus like attitude. How do we know that’s a Jesus like attitude? Do we see that in Scripture? If that is supposed to be a Jesus like attitude, then the opposite must be a pharisee like attitude. Not listening to others tell their story before witnessing. How do we know that’s a Pharisee like attitude? Do we say that in Scripture?
        Another example: choosing to often spend time with non-believers. According to Barna, that’s a Christlike attitude. But how much time is “often”? They claim that their statements come from the gospels and the epistles, but you cannot make a statement about how much time Jesus spent with non-believers when you have so little of Christ’s life written down. The gospels cover about 3 1/2 years of His life (not counting the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke). And of that 3 1/2 years of ministry, technically only a relatively few days are described. And in the descriptions of the days Jesus spent with people, He actually spent more time with His disciples.
        Another example: telling others that God’s rules are paramount in their lives is supposedly a pharisee like attitude. From Jesus’ own mouth, “If you love Me, you will obey My commandments.” “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy, teaching them to obey everything that I commanded you.” And of course, their is the entire Sermon on the Mount. All of which is about God’s rules are paramount in people’s lives.

        • amos8

          Yes, Joe, I find their “judgments” of what is, and is not “Christ-like,” very … judgmental. The Pharisees made up their own “traditions” and standards of “righteousness.” Just because we make it more palatable, making up a “Christ-scale” in order to judge others in the context of “Phariseeism” is beyond ironic, and it is dangerous.

        • Peter Dohnt

          Hi Joe, I agree with you – it seems the scale is based more on a humanist comparative foundation, neither can we or should we judge a person’s Christ-likeness. To do so does two things – to assume from action the heart and relationship of a person with God – a “very Christ-like” person according to “the scale” may indeed be unregenerate, lost and in need of hearing the gospel.
          Secondly it sets up a “who’s further up the tree” mentality within the church – we are all servants and all serve Christ.
          Both outcomes are dangerous

  • Brian Harrison

    Garbage science designed to preach the new gospel of the age called “tolerance”

  • Bob Pena

    I consider myself to be within the evangelical fold, but as I read through the 20 questions I see how I may have allowed myself to slip towards being an undercover Christian, although most who know me also know of my faith. But what about those who I just have a passing greeting as I did yesterday while picking up some stuff at the market, some middle age guy passing thru the same aisles says: “God bless you”, leaving little doubt that he “has been with Jesus”. Maybe some are uncomfortable with the survey because where We Landed.

  • Algoria

    First of all the Pharisees were a Jewish sect from 2000 years ago.They no longer exist. It is no more helpful to compare evangelical Christians with Pharisees than to say liberal Christians are like Saducees, another extinct Jewish sect, just because they also had trouble believing the scriptures.

    The study shows that some bible believing Christians are self-righteous or legalistic. Why not simply say so instead of using the loaded word “Pharisee”? Why conflate evangelicals with the evil hypocrites who hated Jesus and had him whipped and hung on a cross? What is your agenda here?

    I don’t see any articles here comparing the liberal or emergent church with atheists, communists or Nazis because they all have some similarities. Atheists are generally in favor of same-sex marriage and legalized prostitution. So are many in the emergent church. Communists promoted abortion as a birth control method in countries they controlled. They believed in abortion on demand, as do many in the emergent church. The Nazis promoted euthanasia which is becoming more accepted among those in the emergent church.

    I’ll be waiting expectantly for those articles.

    • amos8

      Great post! I’m right there waiting … and waiting … and waiting … and …

      It does seem that emergents/liberals are somewhat untouchable here (and other places), yet they seem to have carte blanche when it comes to writing articles that judge and condemn conservatives/”traditionalists” as “Pharisees,” “Haters,” “Fundamentalists,” “Legalists,” …

      Furthermore, I noticed a new thing here, many comments on these articles are frequently deleted (with no explanation). To compound this, the “deletion practice” happens in the context of MANY vile things posted here (by people of all stripes), one of which was perhaps THE most vile phrase in the English language (used by an emergent/liberal author in the comment section of his own article) … and it remains to this day [EVEN after I flagged it several times AND wrote multiple requests to have it removed].

      • Algoria

        I must have missed that article. What was the title and date of posting?

        • amos8

          I don’t know the exact date (about 3 months ago) but it was by Shaun King and about “7 Raw Truths…”

          This is actually YOUR fault ; ) … in that I noticed in one of your comments what he said about Mark Driscoll and so I asked a question/made a comment to which he responded. It is at the beginning of the comments. I asked repeatedly that it be removed and, apparently, they refused.

          • Algoria

            Thanks. I looked it up and I see what you’re saying. Using vulgar or obscene comments, especially writing them which takes a little more premeditation than verbalizing, is immature at the very least.

            Shaun King’s lack of discernment is more troubling than his language though. His statement, “How dare (you) judge the sincerity of the President’s faith,” sounds incredibly naive for a former pastor, since Obama gives no indication that he’s truly a Christian. His declaration that he is one certainly doesn’t make him one especially since the evidence is so obviously to the contrary.

            To complicate things Mark Driscoll has also said and written some outrageous things. One man described his attitude toward sex as “lewd and irreverent.” A little checking revealed that he was right.

            With such behavior among the “leaders” of the Church one wonders if the last days may be getting very near.

          • amos8

            Yes, the “M … F….” word on here, Church Leaders, and apparently to stay permanently. But if you do something minor, then you will be deleted!

  • On God’s Path

    Interesting study. Legalistic Christianity is definitely is a reason often cited by “spiritual but not religious” believers who might otherwise be attending church. This is not to say that all churches, denominations, and leaders espouse or practice legalism but a very vocal group do and this is keeping some from becoming active members of the Christian community. Perhaps each leader, leadership group, etc. should ask themselves what message are they delivering to their own and those outside. Honestly addressing this question and prayerfully developing pathways to change could go a long way in building the Kin-dom!

  • wow

    wow this is interesting.It is written let not many desire to become teachers. There will be double accountability. So if God set the ministry gifts in the body for the equipping and maturing of the saints. I have to ask myself though all are accountable. If it’s an army of God. Will the leader be held more accountable.



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