A holier-than-thou attitude is pride displayed through words or actions when people consider themselves more righteous or moral than other people, based upon their own standards of judgment. When someone has adopted a particular lifestyle or been convicted about certain behaviors that are not necessarily shared by other Christians, they may begin to think of themselves as better than those who differ from them. A holier-than-thou attitude is a slippery trap that can easily ensnare.
God often gives us specific personal convictions as we grow in our faith. But when we wear those convictions like a crown and openly criticize those who don’t share them, we are expressing a holier-than-thou attitude. For example, a Christian may become convicted about attending movies shown in theaters. Because of the evil movies usually shown there, this person believes it is wrong for him to financially support the theater. According to Romans 14:14, it would be wrong for him to violate this conviction and attend a movie. However, this conviction is nowhere commanded in the Bible, so, if this Christian begins to condemn other Christians who do attend clean movies in theaters, he has developed a holier-than-thou attitude.
Many people with a holier-than-thou attitude also fall into the trap of legalism. Legalists think that their keeping of rules will curry favor with God, and so they tend to put more emphasis on outward behaviors than inward heart motivations. This is the opposite of God’s priorities (1 Samuel 16:7; Luke 16:15). The legalistic Pharisees of Jesus’ day had holier-than-thou attitudes. They considered themselves expert keepers of God’s Law and thus closer to God than other people, but Jesus pointed out that they had missed the whole point of the Law. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
When we adopt a holier-than-thou attitude, it means we have begun comparing ourselves with other people instead of keeping our eyes on Jesus as our example (2 Corinthians 10:12). Those who enjoy their holier-than-thou attitude often gravitate toward those with whom they can compare themselves favorably. They keep this attitude thriving by thinking, “At least I’m not like So-and-So.” We see this attitude demonstrated on social media. Some people post photos of their open Bibles with a verse for the day, only to later make rude or demeaning comments on other posts. Holier-than-thou people don’t respectfully engage in discussions about ideas; they belittle, sermonize, and grow angry when challenged. They demand respect but rarely give it. They speak in absolutes even when the Bible doesn’t. And they often twist a Bible verse or two to prove that their opinion applies to everyone, even though the whole of Scripture does not support their idea.
While we should never compromise on the basic fundamentals of salvation, grace, and the divinity of Jesus, other issues not clearly addressed in Scripture can be the foundation for developing a holier-than-thou attitude. God defines sin; we don’t. Whether a woman wears makeup, jewelry, or bright colors is never addressed in Scripture, so such choices are between her and God. We tend to judge each other about everything from how children are schooled to whether or not one drinks wine in moderation. When we go beyond expressing our thoughts as personal conviction and present them as rules for everyone else, we can develop a holier-than-thou attitude. When we begin to think of ourselves as better than other people because we don’t struggle with a particular temptation or because we maintain a high standard in one area of conduct, we are already acting holier-than-thou.
We should not confuse the prideful holier-than-thou attitude with a godly scriptural stance. For example, it has become fashionable, even among professing Christians, to champion homosexuality as acceptable to God. Those who oppose this thinking on scriptural grounds (Genesis 19:1–13; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; Jude 1:7) are often accused of having holier-than-thou attitudes. However, it is not prideful to lovingly show others what God’s Word says about a subject. It is in the way we declare that truth that can mark the difference between confidence in God’s Word and a holier-than-thou attitude.
Paul dealt with how to avoid a holier-than-thou attitude in Romans 14. In his day, the hot-button issues were eating meat offered to idols and which days to consider holy days. Paul instructs his readers to “stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (verse 13). Rather than develop a holier-than-thou attitude toward those who do not share our personal convictions about non-essential issues, we should look for ways we can limit our own freedoms in order not to offend a weaker brother (verse 15). Humility, not pride, should characterize the life of a believer.