Many first century Pharisees were doctrinally orthodox, religiously vigilant and spiritually dead. Sitting in Moses’ seat they taught scores of things in accord with what was revealed in the Mosaic legislation (Mt 23:2-3). They scrupulously tithed even the mint, dill and cumin (Mt 23:23). But in their unregenerate condition they had neither the will nor the desire to pursue the weightier matters of the law. They neglected justice and mercy and faithfulness, or perhaps better, faith! (Mt 23:23). They had no faith! Thus, they were utterly incapable of pleasing God (Heb 11:6). Luke says they neglected the love of God (Lk 11:42). That is, they failed in the one area that legitimizes religion and makes it worthwhile. These Pharisees were not sincere believers let alone true shepherds. While they were occupied with truth, their minds were dark. While they expressed concern for the Law, their wills were rigid. While they became preoccupied with religion, their hearts were cold. While their lips sounded pious their souls were profane. Hence, they had no spiritual power and were incapable of actually edifying the people or feeding the flock. They were not just personally weak but spiritually lifeless! Their appearance was terribly misleading. Sincerely religious people were deluded by their façade. These poor folks looked up to the Pharisees. They trusted them. They were abused by them! The Pharisees wielded power, exerted influence, became rich and enjoyed prestige all by exploiting popular credulity. The leaves of their profession, i.e. their religiosity, held out great promise of spiritual fruit. But the branches of their practice were sadly and utterly barren. How apt was that cursed and withered fig tree as a symbol of these unfruitful usurpers! (Mk 11:13-14). To make up for their lack of spiritual power in what is mistakenly called their “ministry” (perhaps “machinery” is a better term), the Pharisees exaggerated their authority, abused their power and behaved like religious bullies.
Bullies are deeply insecure. Those of the religious persuasion are no different. They feel the need to exaggerate ecclesiastical authority and abuse spiritual power so they can shield their own vulnerability. They often boast and brag, shout and jeer, criticize, cajole and condemn all in the service of personal protection and advancement. By this means they can deflect the force of truth and true godliness. For them, the greatest evil is pain, not sin. They go to great lengths to avoid it, often pushing if not crossing the boundaries of orthodoxy and legality just to preserve themselves from it. This includes the annoying and destructive tactics of intimidation. They maneuver, manipulate and manhandle so as to browbeat their sheep into frightened submission. Bereft of true humility, lacking in true courage and ignorant of true greatness, they employ the methods of intimidation to maintain their position, preserve their power and shield their fragile egos. How ironic! Those who so strenuously claim to have courage are so desperately fraught with cowardice. We are all by nature weak and cowardly, and as Christians we may freely admit it and seek our strength from the Lord. But not the religious bully. He cannot bear that kind of exposure. It is too painful. He hates the vulnerability. He despises the pain. So in desperate attempts at self-preservation he berates and beats on his sheep. He bullies them! I am confident that part of those burdens laid on people’s shoulders by the Pharisees were the upshot of their own insecurities. It kept the populace in line.
There are many in the pastorate who follow the Pharisaic pattern. They are prone to this exaggeration of authority and abuse of power. This is why Peter expressly warns against it. I exhort the elders among you, he says, shepherd the flock of God that is among you… not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1Pet 5:1-3). That is to say, don’t seek to overpower them intellectually or emotionally or spiritually or even physically. Think of those who sprinkle Greek words throughout their sermons, or utilize emotive powers to manipulate crowds, or speak truth unseasonably to silence any challenge, or even prey upon weak and lonely women! Do not dominate them, says Peter! Rather, serve them in love and humility, for this is true greatness in the kingdom of God. The unbelieving world understands, appreciates and exercises heavy-handed authority, brute strength and raw power. But the church must be a place where genuine Christ-likeness, true greatness, is exemplified by those ordained to lead and serve the body (Mk 10:42-43). God intends by this means to provide His people with living, breathing illustrations of loving service.
Therefore pastors and elders should strive to set before the church loving, humble examples of piety for Christ’s disciples to emulate (Heb 13:7). And emulate they will! God made us after His own image. That means, in part, that we are social beings. As such we will influence and be influenced by others. It is inevitable! Throughout life we “catch” far more than we “fetch”. The example of others will exert a powerful influence upon our lives, often more so than their teaching. Paul recognized this phenomenon and advised Timothy accordingly. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1Tim 4:16). First yourself, then your teaching! The order is significant. Leaders must exhibit a credible profession, otherwise they will discredit themselves and injure others (Mt 7:15-20). Does not Paul warn against the evil influence of bad company? (1Cor 5:6; 15:33). He knows the power of social interaction and personal influence. I note with interest how congregations, for the most part, assume the tone and demeanor of their leadership, especially their pastors. This is not necessarily bad. In fact it can be a tremendous benefit. But it does suggest we employ great caution in choosing those who lead us and rule over us!
The Christian need not tolerate religious intimidation and harassment. Under the blessing of God for the glory of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit he may stand firm against such bullying. He need not be angry, disrespectful or anxious. Rather, he may be steady in his resolve to guard that glorious freedom for which he and every other Christian has been redeemed. He may and should use that freedom through love to serve others (Gal 5:13). Let’s heed Paul’s counsel and pay careful attention to ourselves and all the flock. Let’s care for the church of God which He obtained with His own blood (Acts 20:28). It is inevitable that fierce wolves will come in among us, not sparing the flock. They will speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30). These may not be obvious things. They may not be blatantly heretical things. They are twisted things, truths so bent and warped and distorted that they have become something other than the gospel. An overemphasis here, an imbalance there, an unbiblical tone everywhere. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1John 4:1).