Hypocritical Leadership (Matthew 23)

Our Bible text at Church yesterday was Matthew chapter 23. It is a difficult passage to preach, not least because a pastor teaching about sinful leadership is a hazardous undertaking. As I meditated on Jesus’ words last week, and even now, I am aware of my own sinful proclivities and failings. Christ’s words cause me to reflect on my own life and public ministry, which of course is a good thing to do.

It was also difficult to preach on this Scripture without being aware of recent revelations of spiritual and moral failings by high profiled Christian leaders. One does not need to be intimately involved in these stories to sense a degree of dismay, anger, and sadness; people have been abused and betrayed, and the Gospel dragged into the mud.  The Church is meant to reflect the character of Christ and should be the safest environment on earth for people. Often this is the case, but not always.

I am not about to impose Matthew ch.23 on each of those situations or to assume that behind these men are the same set of motives and attitudes that Jesus is exposing among the Pharisees and teachers of the law. I am not writing in response to these cases, but am rather thinking more broadly about leadership because of having just preached on Matthew. ch.23. Having said that, as we come to terms with the nature of Christian leadership and the kind of leaders our churches and organisations need, Jesus’ address raises several invaluable cautions and helps.

What is so astonishing about Matthew ch.23 is that the people Jesus is calling us to avoid were the model citizens of that culture. The Pharisees and scribes were the spiritual and social leaders of the day. People looked up to them and tried to emulate them. Jesus says, do otherwise. No fewer than six times does he call them hypocrites (and hypocrite is among the more polite names he uses here). The hypocrite is a pretender, someone uses religion to feed their own ego, they use people to fuel their pride and hold onto power. Jesus is not directing his attention at individuals who have committed a single sin; he is describing a pattern of behaviour that stems from an egotistic (and perhaps even narcissistic) attitude of the heart. This is habit-forming behaviour.

These are ominous words for anyone who holds a position of authority in a local church, and they are words of wisdom and grace for the rest of us who sit under the leadership in our churches. You can listen to the sermon via this link. What I wish to do here is offer six reflections on leadership based on my meditations on Matthew ch.23.

1. Jesus knows our hearts.

If Jesus knows the motivations of the Pharisees and exposes them before the population of Jerusalem, surely he is aware of the attitudes and impulses that shape our own lives and ministry.

“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

2. Jesus opposes hypocrisy

As difficult as Bible passages like Matthew ch.23 are, they are a good and gracious word from God. Jesus is showing us that God both sees injustice and he opposes hypocrisy. God is not okay with people being used and abused.  Some of the strongest language used in Scripture is found here coming from the mouth of the Lord Jesus.

The Lord Jesus not only denounced hypocrisy in the strongest terms, he explains why this is necessary. The first ‘woe’ outlines the justification for Jesus’ judgment.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.  (v.13)

Hypocrisy has a devastating effect on those who are under such leadership. While outward appearances suggest spiritual vitality and attractiveness, the inner realities are very different.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (vv.25-28)

Such leadership confuses people, misleading people into believing error and into acting inappropriately and coming to the wrong conclusions about God. Hypocrisy distorts  God’s vision for his Church.

3. Be careful who we follow

Jesus’ words are not hypotheticals but address real men who abused their authority and who were responsible for causing real damage to real people.  The purpose of his words is to inform and to warn so that we avoid following the hypocrite. Of course, part of the problem is that we often only make this discovery after the fact. Even as Jesus explains, it’s hard to spot a hypocrite.  There are signs and we can learn to discern the traits, but it’s not always an easy task. For those who are taken in, you are a victim of malicious intent. The rest of us need to recognise the abuse for what it is, own up to our failings in protecting people, and learn to more effectively guard the flock as God calls us to do.

When we see a brilliant public speaker, or erudite thinker, or captivating person, be slow, be wise, and test them. Don’t ignore character for charisma. Don’t dismiss godliness because of personality. The wolf may appear cute and fluffy, but don’t be fooled!


Spotted this wolf in Montana back in 2013

Under God’s providence, in the different spheres of life there are authorities, small ‘a’ authorities whom we ought to respect and follow. For example, our parents, the boss at work, the Government, and the Elders at Church. However, we should not blindly follow any of them.

Indeed, one of the sharp contrasts Jesus establishes is that between the leaders in Jerusalem and the true leader, whom he identifies as ‘Father in heaven’ and as ‘Messiah’.

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. (vv.9-10)

At the end of the day, we have one Lord and he can be trusted. He doesn’t treat his own with disdain, for he loves his own.

4. Be careful who we appoint

It is no small thing for a church to appoint pastors, elders, and deacons. The Scriptures urge us to to be slow and deliberate. The New Testament outlines prerequisites for those desiring to serve as pastoral ministry, and we would do well to rely heavily upon these Biblical processes.

As a Pastor, I understand the pressures of never having enough people to serve in different ministries. I also understand the pressures of appointing the vocal member, the eager member, or the well-liked member of the congregation. They may or may not be suited to the role but we are not serving our churches well by shortcutting due diligence.

5. Be careful who we claim to be

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, is a distinguished moral psychologist from Virginia University. He introduces his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, with the unsettling observation,

“It is the realization that we are all self-righteous hypocrites”

In another volume, The Righteous Mind, Haidt writes,

“We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.”

Leaders turn to hypocrisy because opportunity and position affords them to exercise the already existing condition in the heart. Where in our own lives are we aware of the Pharisaic tendencies? How do Jesus’ words make us uncomfortable about the realisation of our own desires?

6. The leadership our churches need

“The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vv.11-12)

These words are foremost autobiographical, for who is the greatest and who has humbled themselves more the Lord Jesus Christ? He did so first as our substitute and for our salvation; he humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross. And second, His life is our guide showing us how to lead and love God’s people.

God hasn’t preserved these words of Christ in Holy Scripture so that we would neglect them. They serve as a timely word to Churches whom Christ loves. They are a public admonishment to structures and offices who neglect their duty before God. These words are a call to repentance for leaders who have used and abused the people under their care.

Jesus asks,

“How will you escape being condemned to hell?” 

He then adds,

“Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers.”

The question is for those of us who are in leadership is, will we listen?