Jesus Confronts Religious Abusers

Have you noticed that when a new hotel or commercial building is being constructed, the architects will invariably install large mirrors in the lobby? Ever wondered why? Apparently we complain less when we’re looking at ourselves.

We all get distracted by our reflection at times, don’t we?  We all want to be seen, to be recognized, to be accepted, affirmed, encouraged, appreciated, valued. And that’s OK. It is instinctive to want to be loved. As long as we are not preoccupied or obsessed with ourselves and what others can or should do for us.  As we emphasize on our church website “We were designed to live in community – to know and be known, to love and be loved, to serve and be served, to celebrate and be celebrated.”

But like the mirrors you sometimes find at amusement parks, our self perception can so easily become warped or distorted when we view ourselves through the eyes of other people rather than God.  It is bad enough when this is tolerated in a community and remains unchecked. But it is much worse when religious leaders encourage and exploit their image or position. Then it becomes abusive and manipulative.  I have been a victim of that kind of spiritual abuse. And if you have been a church member for any length of time, you probably have been too. Spiritual abuse ranges from the relatively benign to the lethally toxic, but usually stems from a misuse of authority by religious leaders.

Regardless of the degree of abuse, it is always destructive. Religious exploitation is most easily identified when there is  manipulation or coercion. However, it may arise in more insidious ways when likeable, even lovable, charismatic individuals take advantage of their positions to exploit those they care for. Parents may spiritually abuse children, husbands and wives may abuse each other, pastors may abuse members, lay leasers may abuse ministers, televangelists may abuse supporters. Abuse occurs when we exploit other people to advance our own self-interests. In our series The Passion of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, last week we focused on Jesus authority – We saw Jesus is both the Son of David and the Lord of David.

Today we encounter Jesus confronting religious leaders abusing the Lord’s people. Jesus shows us how to identify religious abuse and at the same time inoculate ourselves. Please turn with me to Matthew 23. Lets learn from Jesus how to ensure our church remains a safe place for young and old under three headings:

Be Holy: Cultivate a Simple Faith (Matthew 23:1-4)
Be Hidden: Content with a Secret Faith (Matthew 23:5-7)
Be Humble: Concentrate on a Serving Faith (Matthew 23:8-12)

Jesus Confronts Religious Abusers from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

1.   Be Holy: Cultivate a Simple Faith

 “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1-4)

The religious leaders exploited their role and abused God’s people. To them, ministry meant imposing lots of rules and regulations that dictated how you worshipped, what you wore, what you ate, who you could associate with. And Jesus says, they added to people’s burdens. The Pharisees were harder on others than they were on themselves. They assumed a status and an authority the Lord had not given them. A literal translation of verse 2 would be “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in Moses’ seat”.

There is no record in the Scriptures that God assigned any authority to them. Their only authority came from teaching the Word of God. Therefore, Jesus says, people should obey whatever the Pharisees taught from the Scriptures. But they need not obey the abusive and burdensome man-made rules the Pharisees imposed. Holiness does not consist in keeping lots of rules. Spirituality is not cultivated through guilt and fear. The Pharisees judged the spirituality of others by how rigorous they were in obeying their rules.

Now we do it in more subtle ways – “Gee, that was a great sermon. I wish Fred had been here to hear that one. He really needs it.” Or “I think Jane is backsliding, she’s stopped coming to our Bible study group and doesn’t stay around after services anymore…”

I’m less likely to act like the Pharisees if I first ask myself how a Bible passage applies to me before I look for an application for you. We all face the same temptations and I am just as likely to fall into sin as you are.  We are all equal at the foot of the cross. Now that does not mean that we should not strive to become holy or more like Christ. It does not mean that we should not hold one another mutually accountable either.

So what does a simple faith look like then? At Christ Church we have embraced an annual membership covenant that we renew each Easter. More than 50 years ago, the Church of England issued a Short Guide to the Duties of Church Membership.

Our membership scheme is based on this Guide.

We have embraced it because it is rooted in Scripture and identifies the basic practices expected of any follower of Jesus Christ. At Easter we will invite you to put your name to a simple declaration that, with God’s help, you will be an active member during the year ahead.

  • To follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
  • To be regular in private prayer day by day
  • To read the Bible carefully.
  • To come to Church every Sunday
  • To receive the Holy Communion faithfully and regularly
  • To give personal service to Church, neighbours, and community
  • To give money for the work of parish and diocese and for the work of the Church at home and overseas
  • To uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to His Church
  • To care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord.

Based on Scripture, these affirmations define how we can best grow to maturity together as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Specifically, we commit ourselves to:

  • Protecting the unity of our church.
  • Sharing responsibility for our church.
  • Serving the ministry of our church.
  • Supporting the testimony of our church.
  • Co-operating with the leaders in fulfilling the Vision of our church.

And most important of all, notice the pledge begins:

With God’s help…” for we acknowledge that it is only by grace that we are saved. And it is only by grace that we serve.

In contrast to the Pharisees heavy burdens, Jesus promised,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:27-30)

So, if we want to avoid spiritual abuse, lets stop playing spiritual games of one-upmanship and help one another cultivate a simple faith.  Be Holy: Cultivate a simple faith.

2. Be Hidden: Content with a Secret Faith 

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 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.” (Matthew 23:5-10)

To the Pharisees, what mattered was being seen, being recognized and revered. They used religious jewelry to display their piety. “Phylacteries” were small leather boxes into which the Pharisees placed portions of the Scriptures.  They wore these boxes on their foreheads and arms. They took the commands of Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18 all too literally.

They also increased the size of their “tassels” on the hems of their garments to make them appear more holy (Num. 15:38; see Matt. 9:20). They expected people to acknowledge their elevated status by giving them the best seats at meals.  They expected to be addressed by special titles. The title “rabbi” for example, means “my great one” and was coveted by the religious leaders. (Today religious leaders seem to covet honorary doctor’s degrees.)

Jesus forbad His disciples to use the title rabbi because they were brothers, and Jesus alone was their Teacher.  There is an equality among the children of God, under the lordship of Jesus Christ. We are all equal at the foot of the cross. Jesus also forbad them to use the title father with reference to spiritual things. It is OK to call one’s own father by that name, but it is wrong to use it when addressing a spiritual leader.  God has given spiritual leaders, to

“equip [us] 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” (Ephesians 4:12-13).

True, we don’t wear clerical robes at Christ Church or encourage you to wear phylacteries or tassles (although I do know some who use a cross to the same effect).  But any time we wear clothes or jewellery in church to draw attention to ourselves, or to emphasize our spirituality, you can be assured — God sees.  And He’s not impressed. If we want to avoid spiritual abuse:

Be Holy: Cultivate a Simple Faith.
Be Hidden: Content with a Secret Faith.

3. Be Humble: Concentrate on a Serving Faith

‘The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12)

How do we inoculate ourselves from the temptation to pride in Christian service? Simple –  deflect any praise you get back to God. Corrie ten Boom once told a friend,

“… people thank me so much and it used to worry me because I didn’t want to get a big head. So I began to collect those compliments like flowers.  ‘Thank you,’ I’d say. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Then at the end of the day I’d kneel down and I’d say, ‘Here You are Jesus, they’re all Yours.'”

The best way to avoid pride is by giving the glory back to God… where it belongs. He deserve all the praise and glory that comes our way. Our privilege is to serve the High King of the universe and to be His child. True greatness is found in serving others, not in expecting or coercing them to serve us.  That is why we encourage every member of Christ Church to identify their spiritual gifts and use their talents to serve others joyfully, willingly, freely. Knowing that the glory belongs to Jesus.

Not to us. We find our value and security not in what others think about us or do for us, but in his love and in belonging to Him.

Ken Blue, in his book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, summarises the “symptoms of abusive religion” found in Matthew 23:

• Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position of office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.

• Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their worth and deeds do not match.

• They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on people and make no effort to lift those loads. You know you are in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.

• Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labour to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.

• They seek honourific titles and special privileges that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.

• Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes especially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.

• They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God’s larger agendas.

If you check out our church website and look under policies, you will find our safeguarding policy and our pastoral care policy. These are designed to ensure we are a safe church especially for the young, the elderly and the vulnerable.

So how do you distinguish between spiritual abusers and Godly leaders? Between shepherds and a wolves?

Contrast between Spiritual Abusers and Godly Leaders

  • Abusers drive; leaders lead (John 10:11-15)
  • Abusers say, “I”; true leaders say, “We” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
  • Abusers insist on being served; true leaders serve (Matthew 23.11)
  • Abusers govern by fear; true leaders create trust (1 Thess. 2:10-11)
  • Abusers manipulate; leaders influence by example (Philippians 3.17)
  • Abusers elevate themselves; true leaders elevate others (Philippians 2.3).
  • Abusers exert authority; leaders rely on servanthood (Matthew 20.25).
  • Abusers make service a grind; leaders make service fulfilling (Nehemiah).
  • Abusers serve from self-interest; leaders serve others (1 Cor. 9:19)
  • Abusers wield authority; true leaders empower people (2 Timothy 2:2)
  • Abusers fix blame; true leaders take responsibility (Philemon. 18-19).
  • Abusers know how; true leaders show how (Exodus 18:17).

Today we have encountered Jesus the teacher, confronting religious leaders who were abusing God’s people. We have learnt to identify religious abuse and inoculate ourselves from being abused or of abusing others. Jesus the teachers has given us three principles in particular:

Be Holy: Cultivate a Simple Faith.
Be Hidden: Content with a Secret Faith.
Be Humble: Concentrate on a Serving Faith.

Back in the Middle Ages, in the years 1014-1035, England was ruled by the Danish King Canute. Apparently, he grew tired of hearing his retainers flatter him with extravagant praises of his greatness, power and invincibility.  One day he ordered his throne to be set down on the seashore. He commanded the waves not to come in and wet him.  But as you know, his order was not obeyed. The waves soon lapped around his chair.  One historian tells us from that day on, he never wore his crown again. Apparently he hung it on a statue of the crucified Christ. What do you need to hang on the cross today? Let us pray.

Download a sermon outline



I warmly commend John Maxwell’s book There’s no such thing as Business EthicsThere’s only one rule for making decisions. It contains the following ten principles of conduct we seek to follow at Christ Church.

Ten Principles of Conduct

“When ethics – the Golden Rule – is at the center, all compartments of life are harmonized and integrated. The golden rule is right. It also happens to work.” John Maxwell.

1. If you have a problem with me, please come to me (privately).

2. If I have a problem with you, I’ll come to you (privately).

3. If someone has a problem with me and comes to you, send them to me. (I’ll do the same for you.)

4. If someone consistently will not come to me, say, “Let’s go see him together. I am sure he will see us about this.” (I’ll do the same for you.)

5. Be careful how you interpret me – I would rather do that myself. On matters that are unclear, do not feel pressured to interpret my feelings or thoughts. It is easy to misrepresent intentions.

6. I will be careful how I interpret you.

7. If it’s confidential, don’t tell. If you or anyone else comes to me in confidence, I won’t tell, unless

(a) the person is going to harm themselves,

(b) the person is going to harm someone else,

(c) it involves a child who has been physically or sexually abused.

(d) in cases of church discipline, the clergy will follow Jesus instructions in Matthew 18:15-20.

I expect the same from you.

8. I do not read unsigned letters or notes.

9. I do not manipulate; I will not be manipulated; do not let others manipulate you. Do not let others try and manipulate me through you.

10. When in doubt, just say it. If I can answer it without misrepresenting something or breaking a confidence, I will.

Adapted from John Maxwell, There’s no such thing as Business Ethics (Warner, 2003) pp.44-45.

I’ve added an 11th… “I do not intimidate and I will not be intimidated.”


With grateful thanks to:

John Maxwell “There is no such thing as Business Ethics”
Warren Wiersbe “Matthew: Be Loyal”,
J.C. Ryle, “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels”,
Michael Green “The Message of Matthew”
J. Oswald Sanders “100 Days in Matthew”

and also to Jeff Strite, Jim Miller and Ian Bliss for their helpful sermons on Matthew 23 over at Sermon Central.