There are at least two reasons why the gospel writers give us such extensive material on the Jewish religious leaders of the first century (e.g., scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees). First, Jesus exposes the spiritual character of the Pharisees in order guard his disciples from becoming entangled with and influence by those who are in the grip of religious hypocrisy (see Matt 16:6-12; 23:1-12; cf 2 Tim 3:5). Second, the negative example of the Pharisees help uproot our own residual hypocrisy because Christians are all recovering legalists from one degree to another.
Both perspectives are vital. The first keeps us from becoming susceptible to the pervasive influence of religious hypocrisy. Religious hypocrisy spreads easily and can influence a true believer quickly, like leaven (Luke 12:1-2). The second guards us from self-righteousness, self-deception, and helps us maintain a humble heart before the Lord (Matt 23:12). Religious hypocrisy is deadly: we should call it out when appropriate, and avoid those who are ensnared in it.
Nevertheless, we must also be careful to not hastily diagnose another person’s spiritual condition (Prov 18:2; 18:13). It is possible for a true believer to be guilty of hypocrisy (Gal 2:12-14; 1 Peter 2:1). But this is different than encountering someone who has an appearance of godliness but, once you have a chance to see into their private and public lives, it becomes clear that they are characterized by the qualities listed in Matt 6:1-8; 23:1-35 and 2 Tim 3:1-9. We must let Scripture be our guide in determining what kind of person we are dealing with in a given situation. Sometimes, it will be difficult to tell (Matt 13:27-30) but over time, the truth will become evident (2 Tim 3:9).
Genuine believers, however, won’t be characterized by a penchant to locate religious hypocrites. Actually, hypocrisy hunting is characteristic of religious hypocrites! The scribes and Pharisees were constantly watching Jesus and looking for ways to undermine his authority and question his piety (see Luke 6:7; 20:20). A Christian isn’t naïve, but neither is he primarily concerned with identifying all the false Christians in the world. Nor will a mature Christian suggest that he can judge with certainty the spiritual state of professing Christians. “The true saints,” Jonathan Edwards observes, “have no such a spirit of discerning that they can certainly determine who are godly and who are not.”
A person who has experienced the love of Christ will be eager to find and rejoice in others who have received such a great salvation. When there is good evidence of a sound conversion in another professing believer, it is the spiritual bent of the mature Christian to gladly welcome such people into their fellowship. Edwards again:
When there are many probable appearances of piety in others, it is the duty of the saints to receive them cordially in to their charity, and to love them and rejoice in them as their brethren in Jesus Christ.
None of this is meant to suggest that Christians shouldn’t be diligent to exercise discernment and to guard themselves and others from Christian pretenders. And it is unkind to allow obvious hypocrisy to flourish in the life of another professing Christian. But there is also a sense in which the love that has been shed abroad in the Christian’s heart by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5) will bear the fruit of believing the best about others. This is how I take Paul’s statement, “Love…believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7).
Christian love is a discerning and knowledgeable love, to be sure (Phil 1:9-10), but it is not a love that relishes the opportunity to expose Christian posers. Religious hypocrisy should cause us sorrow (see Phil 3:18), and its discovery attended with an appropriate watchfulness over our own souls (Gal 6:1).