“Nobody” calls our pastor by his first name, the church secretary said to the mayor of the town in which the church was located. “His name is Doctor . . .” she added. This secretary’s pastor proudly shared this story with other pastors in a meeting I once attended. He spoke with pride about how she had blasted the mayor because he had the very nerve to call the pastor by his name. I couldn’t help but wonder if this mayor was a Christian and what he thought about that kind of foolishness.
Don’t misunderstand. If people want to show respect for their pastor, I’m all for it. But this guy demanded that others call him “Brother” or “Doctor” or “Pastor.” Yet I had heard this man refer to the Apostle Paul himself as simply “Paul.” I wondered if he fancied himself as ranking “higher up-line” that the old Apostle himself!
This kind of silliness goes on in legalistic churches all the time. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I bought into legalistic lunacy in my own ministry in years past.) Modern day Pharisees love admiration by others.
Jesus dealt with this same bunch during his earthly ministry. He often derided them for their ridiculous ways. While He showed great tenderness and compassion for the down-and-outers, Jesus took off the gloves when it came to Pharisees. He didn’t hesitate to point out the foolishness of some of the things they made Fundamental, which in reality didn’t even matter.
Consider some of the characteristics of legalistic religious leaders that Jesus pounced:
1. They hunger for power. In Matthew 23:2, He said that the Pharisees “have seated themselves in the chair of Moses” Modern day Pharisees like to sit in the important seat too. They posture themselves to communicate to others that they are the authority on everything. They will do whatever it takes to be in control. Nobody questions their decrees – after all, they speak for God!
2. They live by a double standard. In 23:3-4, the Lord said that they will tell you what you need to do and how you should live, but they don’t even do it themselves. They may preach against theaters, but rent the videos. They’ll preach against tobacco with fried chicken grease dripping off their own elbows. They may renounce laziness, then preach somebody else’s sermons rather than prepare. They lay the law down on others, but find loopholes for their own lives.
3. They are addicted to affirmation. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (23:5-6). Pharisees wore the phylacteries and tassels on their garments to show their commitment to the law and the length of their prayers. The modern Pharisee likes to wear his “commitment” on his sleeve too. He won’t hesitate to tell you about all the sacrifices he makes because of his deep commitment. “I could be making a lot more money in the secular world,” I heard one pastor say, as if God were blessed to have this man on His team.
4. They are hung up on titles. Jesus said they love the place of honor, respectful greetings and religious titles. (23:6-10) The Pharisees insisted on being called “Rabbi” or “Teacher” or “Father.” They are full of themselves and want others to humble themselves before them in adoration. Today, they may insist on being called “Reverend” or “Doctor” or other titles. (There is nothing wrong with these titles or using them. The problem comes when a person insists on being addressed in these ways.)
Matthew 23 is filled with the attack of Jesus against religious behavior like this. Read the chapter for yourself and note the harsh words He had for this group. Jesus taught servant leadership as the model of authentic Christianity, not tyrant leadership.
Have you seen religious leaders like these? What should you do if you are in a church with leaders like the ones described in Matthew 23. The answer is: Run , don’t walk, to the nearest exit. There are churches in your town where the leaders are humble servants of Christ who love Him and love people. Don’t waste your time anymore in a toxic environment. The noxious fumes of arrogant legalism bring death. Why keep breathing it? Find a place where you can breathe clean air.
One disclaimer: God may lead you to stay in place like this as a grace missionary. If so, you’d better be prepared for persecution. The Pharisees attacked Jesus 2000 years ago and they still do when they see Him in you.
For church leaders not to understand grace is one thing. I don’t advocate leaving a church over that. I, myself, lived as a legalist with a right heart and wrong head for many years. God may want to use you in a church like that. But if you’re in a place where the leadership are bonafide Pharisees, who reek of religious arrogance, you might want to think about how you’re spending your time and energy. Some battles just aren’t worth it. Jesus didn’t try to persuade the Pharisees; He just renounced them and walked away.
Sound unloving? Ungracious? It’s not. The most gracious thing a medical doctor can do is call cancer by its name and then try to free the patient from it using whatever means are necessary. Legalism is a cancer. May God heal His church from this terrible disease!