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Conflicts with the Religious Elite

If you are follow Jesus it almost inevitable that you will experience conflicts with institutional religious leaders. Who were Jesus' greatest enemies? Was it the secular Roman leadership, like Pilate? Most of the Jews saw the Romans (non-Jews) as their greatest enemies. But this was not the case with Jesus. In fact when he was brought to trial, Pilate wanted to let him go declaring him an innocent man. It was the Jewish religious leadership that insisted on him being put to death, as Jesus' prophecied: "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." Luke 9:22 Which was also in accordance with the principle he taught that: "a man's enemies will be the members of his own household." Mt 10:36

The Corrupting Effect of Institutionalism

(An extensive article on this subject can be found at Throughout the history of Christianity, its greatest enemy has often been not the world's leadership, but its own institutional leadership. And who is going to tell you this? It is unlikely you'll hear this from institutional leaders. Yet they have made themselves as if the exclusive spokesmen of what constitutes legitimate Christianity. As in Jesus' time so even up to the present. It seems almost inevitable that movements will become corrupted through their institutionalization. Inherent in our sinful nature is the fact that power corrupts. Institutionalism established positions of power which inevitably becomes sources of corruption. This is not to say that we shouldn't institutionalize the practice of Christianity. But we must realize that there are shortcomings which must be realize for the sake of the edification of the body.

Consider forms of government. Because power corrupts it's almost inevitable that dictatorial forms of government will turn out bad in the long run. In the last 50 years, the world has seen the benefit of democracies where there's inherently a check and balance system in place so that corrupt leadership doesn't get out of control. Church leadership must be subject to scrutiny. It must allow itself to be subject to scrutiny. If leadership does not allow themselves to be scrutinized, not only will corruption result, but such is indicative that corruption is already in play. For only the proud don't allow themselves to be scrutinized. And if leadership is characteristically proud, then the institution is already sick.

Yet the typical form of church government lends itself to such corruption. Church leadership has been primarily dictatorial. You go to a church and you basically get lectured at. Feedback is not encouraged nor is criticism of the leadership. Few churches even allow for discussion among the membership of their personal interpretations of the Bible. How can an individual deal with corrupt leadship under such circumstances? Basically Christians have voted with their feet. Denominationalism has resulted. Some churches will claim that they have a built in check and balance system in which an elite group of individuals will keep the pastor in line, but then who is allowed to keep them in line?

"Democratic" type of churches are also not free from corruption. What percentage of the Jewish population followed Jesus? A minority, a remnant. Whatever is popular tends to be deviant from the truth. The majority of people in the world who call themselves "Christians" don't actually treat Jesus as Lord. Most don't take the Bible seriously. Now what happens when you put such a majority in charge of an institutional church? The church will look just like them. Who are they going to vote for in choosing leadership? Someone just like them who will tell them just what they want to hear. The remnant doesn't have a voice. The nominal Christians have taken away their voice by establishing a "lecture" format in which they are not allowed to speak. Rules and regulations are established whereby the unpopular Biblical believers are not allowed to disagree with the leadership. What happens as a result? Often they simply leave.

This is not to say that institutional churches have been established by a bunch of nominal Christians. For often what happens in this: A believer comes out of a corrupt church that won't change and won't listen to him. He establishes a new church. It becomes popular and therefore it becomes corrupt, nominal Christians become dominant. The remnant minority lose their voice, many of whom leave, making the nominal Christians to be even more dominant in the institution. The institution becomes a monument to nominalism.

This is not necessarily something that can be fixed. This is just what happens. Historically, Christian leadership has been obsessed over establishing the perfect institution. That is not Christ's objective. It was not his objective then and it is not his objective now. Institutionalism was established to facilitate the maturing of individual believers to the end that they would be involved in ministry but it has becomes an end itself.

"It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." Eph 4:11-13
Today if you use the word "church", most people think of a building or an institution. But Christ' church is people. If you destroy its buildings and programs, you haven't touched it. But those obsessed over buildings often don't understand Jesus.

"Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." John 2:19

Jesus was involved to an extent in the Jewish synagogues, but he was often treated contemptuously by the religious leadership, and he prophecies:

"Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues." Mat 10:17

"They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God." John 16:2

And this is generally the kind of experience you may have in Christian churches if you follow Jesus.

Criticism of Religious Leadership

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! ... You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town." Matt 23:13,33,34

Hypocrisy is the effect of spiritual pride. Innate within the attitude of spiritual superiority is a condescending judgmentalism of others. The Bible does instruct us to judge ourselves and to judge others. Jesus himself was judging others (the religious leaders in particular) in his statements throughout Matthew 23, for example. But such judgements are to be impartial, without prejudice, based on substance and not mere appearance, as Jesus said, "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." John 7:24 But the religious leaders not only were judging with prejudice, they wee also neglecting to judge themselves. Paul, himself a Pharisee, also made this observation:

"Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth-- you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." Rom 2:17-24
Pride causes one to ignore one's own sinfulness. But why is pride so characteristic of religious leaders? For two reasons: God often arranges for the humble to take positions of authority. Take Moses, for example. He was a humble man, yet he was not allowed to enter the promise land because of a pridefully vain act he committed. Similarly with King David. Started off well, but finished poorly. This is quite common.

How does Jesus deal with proud people? He humiliates them. This was not for their destruction, but for their benefit. As a father chastises his son for his own good, so Jesus humilates the proud to develop in them the essential character quality of humility, without which they cannot be saved. He humilates them by:

Critical Rhetoric

In reaction to criticism, the proud may not have much to say about the actual content of the criticism, if it be true. And so to deflect the issue they may often allude to the tone of the critical rhetoric being used. So it would be instructive to view the precedent that Jesus and his apostles set with regards to the kind of rhetoric they utilized in criticizing the religiously proud.

When Jesus spoke to the religiously proud, it seems he held nothing back with regards to rhetoric. His rhetoric was extreme, even insulting. Note above the quote from Mt 23:33 "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" And likewise with secular authorities, At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you."  He replied, "Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’" Lk 13:31,32

Realize, of course, that such comments were in the context of the hypocrisy Jesus noted of such people. In Matthew chapter 23 He gives a litany of the hypocrisy characteristic of the religious elite of His day, hypocrisy of which in fact is not so much different than one can find throughout history of people in such positions.

Likewise even when Paul confronted Peter with his sin, he was not "polite" but harsh, "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong." Gal 2:11 and he did so publically, "When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'" Gal 2:14 And such public rebuke is consistent with his instruction to Timothy, "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear." 1Tim 5:19,20 Should elders, namely official teachers, be judged more harshly? Yes, they should be judged more strictly, as James writes, "We who teach will be judged more strictly." James 3:1 Both Jesus and His apostles practiced this.

There are those in Christian leadership whom Jesus and His apostles would characterized as wolves. Here Paul encourages us to entertain such an idea. "I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!" Acts 20:29-31a And Jesus here. "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." Mt 7:15-16a Don't go merely by words. For "He who hates, disguises it with his lips, And lays up deceit within himself; When he speaks kindly, do not believe him, For there are seven abominations in his heart; Though his hatred is covered by deceit, His wickedness will be revealed before the assembly." Pr 26:24-26

Besides directness to the put of open insults, Jesus also humiliates the religiously proud in parables. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is such an example, as well as the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the Faithful and Wicked Servants, the parable of the Wicked Tenants and so forth.

In John 8 Jesus speaks of such people in these terms, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!" John 8:42-45 This kind of rhetoric Jesus established as a precedent in dealing with the religious elite who are hostile to the truth. It is frank, unflattering and without guile. But those who are of the truth appreciate that which is true.

The Reaction of the Proud

1. Hostility

Humility and Pride is most easily measured by one's reaction to personal criticism. And this is a good way each individual can measure such in themselves. Proud people do not respond well to criticism, but wise men do respond well. Solomon is not giving a command, but making an observation. This type of figure of speech must be understood when interpreting proverbs and much of Jesus' teaching, such as "Judge not and you shall not be judged" Mat 7:1, which is also not a command, but a proverbial observation. If you judge others, they will judge you. Jesus criticized others and so others criticized him even to the point of murder.And "anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him." 1John 3:15

An example in the Bible of a church leader who was unsaved is Diotrephes of whom the apostle John write, "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God." 3John 1:9-11

2. Deaf, Dumb & Blind

Pride leads to spiritual blindness. Jesus does all kinds of miracles even healing a man born blind and raising Lazarus from the dead, but nothing convinces the proud religious leaders. They are blind to the evidence, being incapable of thinking reasonably. They are blind also to their own sinfulness, even to their hypocrisy.

And they are deaf to the teachings of Christ. They can't understand what he means. "Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say" John 8:43 " We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us." 1John 4:6a

They are dumb in that they can't speak the truth, but rather utter lies and slanders against Christ.

3. The Vampire Syndrome

"Everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed." John 3:20 This is one reason why such leaders will expel Christians from their institutions - just to avoid being exposed to the truth. In contrast the Christian is instructed, "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them." Eph 5:11 The religiously proud are only concerned about their own public image, as Jesus said, "Everything they do is done for men to see" Mt 23:5a While they may appear "good" on the surface, watch what measures they are willing to take if their public image is threatened by the truth.

What to Expect & What to do

As Jesus said, "Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also." John 15:20 "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived." 2Tim 3:12,13 Experiencing persecution from the religiously proud is part of what constitutes walking as Jesus did. So rather than avoid it, embrace it!

As you follow Christ, don't be surprised if the greatest source of hostility against you comes from institutional religious leaders or those who think themselves the religious elite. It's nothing new. What should you do? Just what Jesus did. Fearlessly humiliate the proud. There's a popular saying today among Christians: WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? Better if this were WDJD: What Did Jesus Do? For it seems that many Christians do not have in their mind the historical Biblical Jesus, but a "Jesus" whom they make up in their own mind. When you walk as Jesus did you will see how other Christians really view the Biblical Jesus.

"Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Heb 12:3 and  "Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets." Lk 6:22,23

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources
Jan 29,2022