Summary: When is religious authority right and wrong? How should we behave in an imperfect church? Should we quit church and return to the devil or stay and be a force for good?


When is religious authority right and wrong? How should we behave in an imperfect church? Should we quit church and return to the devil or stay and be a force for good? Let’s look at Jesus’ blunt assessment of human religious leadership in Matthew 23:1-12 and see if we can learn a better way of leading by example.

Matthew 23:2 Can those in Succession be Wrong

Can inherited religious authority be wrong? In Matthew 23:2 Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” What about those who claim to sit in Peter’s seat? How trustworthy is inherited authority? Some Baptists believe that there have always been Christians that practiced immersion. Some sabbatarians believe in an unbroken line of Saturday Sabbath keepers. Apostolic succession theorizes an unbroken line of ordinations from the first apostles. Is there any guarantee in the Bible that someone in any one of these theoretical successions would teach infallibly ex-cathedra? Can descendants be wrong? Jesus said that those who succeeded Moses and sat in his seat of authority were wrong.

Matthew 23:3 Those who Say and Do Not Do

Do we say and not do? In describing those who sat in Moses’ seat, in Matthew 23:3 Jesus said, “they say, and do not do.” How should we approach church leadership that demands religion, but does not practice it? The scribes and Pharisees sat in seats of authority descended from Moses. Their teaching of the scriptures created heavy burdens which even they could not fulfill. The Pharisees began with good intentions, to return Israel to covenant faithfulness so that they could be blessed and freed from oppressive Roman domination. This is a warning that despite best intentions in all of us, we create rules that no one can fully obey.

Matthew 23:4 Burdensome Religion

Is religion meant to be a burden? In Matthew 23:4 Jesus spoke of religious leaders who, “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Jesus said that his burden would be light (Matthew 11:28-30). All churches are a mixture of sin and faith. The Protestant Reformation was a revolt against bad leadership. It solved one problem, temporarily. Protestant churches also experience bad leadership. Sin still exists and loads people down with rules and traditions of mere men. Jesus Christ frees us and the greatest among us are not authoritarian but those who serve.

Matthew 23:5 Outward Religion or Pure

Is religion just an outward show? In Matthew 23:5 Jesus described religious show-offs, “all their works they do to be seen by men.” Outward religion is different than pure religion (James 1:26-28). Pure religion is loving the most vulnerable in very practical terms. Most people think that religion is the heavy burden of tradition, rituals, fancy clothing and holy-sounding titles. James’ definition of pure religion is the opposite of the religion of the Pharisees. Pure religion puts the Gospel into action by relieving people of burdens. The most religious among us are not necessarily those who wear the fanciest clerical garb, but those who humble themselves and serve others.

Matthew 23:6 Loving the Best Places

Should leaders take all the best places? In Matthew 23:6 Jesus reveals bad leadership. “They love the best places.” This is not exclusive to the Church. When bank CEO’s bonuses are millions, get bailouts from the government but freeze employee pay, that is bad leadership. When congressional leaders make the poor pay higher taxes than the wealthy, that is bad leadership. When the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance communities demand the highest incomes, charge Americans double or more for health care than other countries, yet refuse health care for the poor, that is bad leadership. We are called in the midst of all this to provide good leadership individually and collectively.

Matthew 23:7-10 Exalting the Self

Should leaders exalt themselves? In Matthew 23:7-10 Jesus said, “do not be called ‘Rabbi’... Do not call anyone on earth your father… And do not be called teachers.” Did Jesus ban religious titles like Rabbi and Father? The New Testament refers to Abraham several times as Father Abraham (Luke 1:73; John 8:56; Acts 7:2; Romans 4:1, 12, 16). Paul called himself a Father of those begotten through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:15). Is this a contradiction? Jesus often used hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. God is before any human father and Jesus before any human teacher. This condemns the human motive of self-aggrandizement.

Matthew 22:11 Servants or Pharisees

What is servant leadership? In Matthew 22:11 Jesus says that, “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Scribes and Pharisees loved the Bible and prayer, just like many Christians. Could Jesus criticize us with a similar penetrating assessment? Do we practice what we preach? Do we release people from heavy loads? Do we believe that clothing is unimportant? Do we take the less important seats and offer others the better seats? Do we insist on titles or allow others to treat us the same as everyone else? Do we emphasize that we are all taught by Jesus and have God as our Father? Are we humble servants?

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