Religious Leadership Examined

Reading Time: 8 Minutes

In Matthew 22.37-40, we examined two commandments that summarized the Law. In short, Jesus told us to love God with our entire being and to love other people like we love ourselves.

Matthew 23 pictures the same crowd of people that had gathered within the grounds of the Temple complex. The crowd included Jesus’ followers from Galilee, pilgrims to the Passover celebration, religious authorities, and on-lookers who were drawn to what was happening.

Jesus had silenced the religious authorities, who had fired a series of questions at him, designed to trip him up and expose his flaws. The way Jesus answered them demonstrated his wisdom and true nature, while revealing their evil motives.

In this section, Jesus turned the microscope of God’s purposes on the religious leaders. His purpose was to educate the crowd, comprised of both followers and interested persons about what has always been God’s will for humankind.

Religious Leaders Exposed

The Book of James said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3.1).

Every pastor, Sunday School teacher, Facebook warrior, 12 Step sponsor, parent, or other kind of leader should take seriously the words of James. We will be judged with a greater strictness, because our words and actions influence people.

Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus gave a critique of leadership. He said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23.2-4).

Jesus recognized the leadership aspect of the religious authorities, when he said that they “sit on Moses’ seat.” He also told the crowd to “do whatever they teach you.” Their teaching was acceptable and good direction for life.

However, the behavior of the religious leaders was not to be followed, because their actions did not match up to their message.

One of my favorite authors writes entertaining fiction that ranges from science to historical fiction. I saw a YouTube interview where he was asked about complaints that he was arrogant. I remember his words like this, “Sure I’m arrogant. So what? If you have a world class surgeon, you wouldn’t let his arrogance stop you from getting the medical care that you need.”

What is excusable in man who entertains with science fiction or someone performs surgery is not permissible in a person who assumes a leadership role in God’s kingdom. The phrase, “the person is the message” is absolutely valid for ministry. People will always follow the example of a leader far more than their words.

Adding to Burdens

Jesus told people, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28-29).

Religious leaders have the ability to “weary” people by placing heavy burdens on them. The burdens are words of condemnation that sink deep into the soul, delivered without grace or love.

If we address a particular sin or character flaw, we need to be willing to assist the person move in the direction of living the Jesus-kind-of-life. A hit and run message, where we drop a bomb of condemnation and then leave it for the condemned person to sort things out is worthy of Jesus’ condemnation.

In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus invited people to come to him. and to learn from him. If they were willing to follow him (“take my yoke upon you”), he would lead them to abundant life.

Craving Power and Status

Jesus continued his examination of the religious authorities. He said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matthew 23.5-7).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautioned against acts of giving, prayer and fasting for the applause of the crowd. If we do Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 5.2, 5, 16).

Religious power and status is seductive. I have been a religious leader for over 50 years and I have had to contend with my desire for power and status on a regular basis.

As Jesus turned his attention away from the religious leaders, he began to address the entire crowd. In his words, we have good direction for how to overcome the need for status and power.

Servant Leadership

I imagine Jesus turning his gaze from the scribes and Pharisee to that of his close followers. He said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23.8-12).

We Are All Amateurs

I have heard Dr. Richard Foster, the author of Celebration of Discipline, speak on two different occasions. I was most impressed by Foster’s comment, “I am just an amateur.”

That statement has stayed with me for 20 years. One of the most influential authors in my life and the individual that started a modern day movement in the church claimed to be an amateur. He truly understands Jesus’ words, “you are all students.”

Dr. Paul Farmer is another influential person in my life. He is an acclaimed medical doctor and anthropologist. Farmer teaches at Harvard, but serves poor people primarily in Haiti. Farmer has adopted a phrase from the people of Haiti, “accompaniment.” He does not provide aid, but he accompanies people in their journey to health. He is not the “big doctor” from America who has come to save the day. Rather, he is a friend of the people who reside in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. He walks by their side in a give and take relationship best suited for equals.

Farmer understands Jesus’ words, “you are not to be called doctor, for we all students.”

Humble Servants

Jesus was our example of servant-hood. Paul wrote in Philippians,

“Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave. . .”
(Philippians 2.5-7)

Jesus not only taught humility, he also live humility. There is nothing more humbling and servant orientated than death on a cross for the sins of humanity.

As we come to him and learn from him by following him every day of our lives, he will mold the proper leadership qualities in us. Let’s all come to him and experience the life he wants us to have.

Today’s Prayer

Dear Jesus, we praise you for your amazing character. You are the greatest Being to walk our earth, but you were also the most humble and servant of all. Please draw us into the kind of life that you demonstrated for us.


  1. As I read Matthew 23 and then your blog this morning, I am struck by Jesus’s words over and over “what sorrow awaits.” And since your blog today ends with verse 12, I would imagine you will write of these sorrows awaiting the religious leaders in tomorrow’s installment. These harsh words of Jesus continue to shine light on the hypocrisy of the leaders. Which drives me to my knees to say “Jesus, Your approval is all I need!”

    I do not fashion myself a leader, but by your definition, as I comment on your posts, I am opening that door for greater scrutiny that James describes. Indeed, I do not want to face the sorrows of the religious hypocrites, may my actions support my words, and show my belief. May the Light of Jesus shine through my life. May I look for ways to show Jesus’s love to others – to be about it – to be sincere.

    Liked by 1 person

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