It important to know the difference because abuse survivors can be hurt or even retraumatized by behavior that resembles Christ at first glance but upon further examination has little in common with Him. This is one of the primary ways that the enemy of our souls keeps us from truly getting to know the Lord Jesus and finding freedom in Him. The problem is that we often think of churches as safe places with leaders who represent God well. Unfortunately, that is not always true. Some church leaders are more like the religious leaders Jesus denounced (the Pharisees and Sadducees) than like the Christ they profess to follow. So, how can we tell the difference? As I prayed about this recently, the Holy Spirit began to highlight some key distinctions in Luke 11:37-12:3:
- Jesus focused on the motivation behind religious activities. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day failed to consider the motivations behind their actions. For instance, they focused on the importance of tithing (giving to the church) but neglected justice and the love of God toward those they were called to serve with those tithes. Jesus did not say activities, such as tithing, should be neglected; rather he said the motivation behind them must also be good! For instance, some leaders give special consideration to wealthy members of their church whose tithes undergird their salaries (James 2:1-6). Jesus on the other hand, said it’s not the size of the gift that matters, but the attitude of heart behind one’s giving.
In Mark 12:41-44 Jesus pointed out a widow who put two very small coins (only worth a few cents) into the offering plate. He said although the monetary value of her gift was less than others’ gifts, it was greater because she offered all that she had. Jesus did not focus on external practices of religion irrespective of internal motives and the needs of others. (Luke 4:16-21). If the Christian leaders you’ve encountered don’t acknowledge real needs—be they physical, emotional or spiritual—it is likely that their attitudes don’t reflect the heart of Christ either, regardless of their religious words and practices.
- Jesus denounced those who expected honor and esteem because of their job status. Jesus said the religious leaders of his day loved places of honor in the church and respectful greetings in the community (Luke 11:43). This verse reminds me of the ornate clergy chairs that adorned the pulpit in the church where I grew up and the long robes and hats some clergypersons wear today. In Matthew 23:5-7 (The Message) Jesus said, “…Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’” In Luke 11, Jesus pronounced impending judgment upon such attitudes when he said, “Woe” to these leaders.
In contrast to this, I recall the testimony of a Chinese graduate student who joined my Bible study group years ago after being a member of an underground church in China. Her pastor had spent 20 years in prison for his faith and was well known by mission organizations in the U.S. She told me that when her pastor wasn’t preaching, he sat at the back of the room in a folding chair by the door. When she first began attending that underground church, she thought he was the janitor until he stood to speak. She did not know he was famous until she arrived in the U.S., but she remembered how caring and compassionate he was. Her pastor, Samuel Lamb, wasn’t focused on public recognition and professional acclaim; rather He modeled the heart of Jesus for his flock and taught the Christian community at large how to grow through devotion to Christ even in the face of persecution. I imagine he sat by the door so if the authorities came, he would be the first to face them.
- Jesus denounced those who placed burdens on people and were unwilling to lift a finger to help. (Luke 11:46). Jesus was likely referring to legalistic expectations which quickly lead to burnout. Have you ever belonged to a church where leaders related to you based on your area of service but neglected to get to know you personally? For instance, if your spouse doesn’t attend church with you regularly, do your church leaders know his or her name? Are they praying for your spouse as well as for you?
In John 13:1-17, Jesus modeled servant leadership when he washed his disciples’ feet. Christ-like leaders lead by example, stooping low to lift others up. Rather than create burdens, they help relieve them though acts of sacrificial service and heartfelt concern directed toward those God has entrusted to their care.
- Jesus denounced those who pretended to care about those who suffered, but in practice honored those who harmed them. He said they “built tombs for the prophets their ancestors killed. Those tombs were monuments to their murdering ancestors more than to the murdered prophets. (Luke 11:47-51, The Message).” I described scenarios like this in my recent blog post, The Costly Impact of Cheap Grace. Many sexual abuse and spiritual abuse survivors have, unfortunately, encountered such betrayal from religious leaders.
Jesus isn’t like that. He said that those who cause such harm would be better off to have a large millstone hung around their neck and drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6-9)! Christlike leaders are proponents of true justice, not self-serving rhetoric that protects their reputations and churches at the expense of those who are suffering.
- Jesus denounced the misuse of religious knowledge to shut others out (Luke 11:52, The Message). Ironically, in the verses that follow, the religious leaders opposed Jesus fiercely and besieged him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say. Religious leaders sometimes use the scriptures like a club to attack others while true followers of Jesus put the scriptures into practice in such a way that others are inspired to inquire about their faith (I Peter 3:15).
Nothing can turn unbelievers off faster than a religious person whose words are not in sync with Jesus’s heart for them. It brings to mind the lyrics of Steve Camp’s song, “Don’t tell them Jesus loves them, until you’re ready to love them too, till your heart breaks from the sorrow and the pain they’re going through.” Beware of those who quote scriptures to you then fail to abide by those same scriptures in the way they relate to their flock.
- Jesus denounced hypocrisy in all its forms. He assured his disciples that truth would be disclosed, and hidden things brought to light (Luke 12:1-3). I am currently reading A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. In chapter 4, I read: “Silenced truth is an unspoken lie.” Yes, words also matter, especially when truth is being misrepresented by silence or neglect. What leaders fail to say and do is just as important as what they say and do.
Hypocrisy that fails to acknowledge truth turns people away from Jesus, while the practice of genuine Christian faith draws others to Him.
In Ezekiel 34, God contrasts His own leadership style with the self-centered practices of the religious leaders of that day:
It is important for abuse survivors to be able to identify Christlike leaders and to turn away from religious ones who misrepresent God’s heart. Pay attention to your gut instincts. If something seems off, it probably is. Ask yourself, “Do the leaders care for me and others in the congregation like God describes above? Are they truly representing His heart?”
If not, be wary. Look for attitudes, as well as actions, that closely align with what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, also indicated were hallmarks of His leadership in John 10:1-21:
In closing, never judge the Good Shepherd by those who profess to know Him well, but whose attitudes misrepresent His heart for you! Isaiah 40:11 (NIV) says, “He tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.” If you are hurting, Jesus cares. He will never turn away from your pain. Rather, he invites you to “cast your anxieties upon Him because he cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7 NIV). It is my prayer we can be a part of churches with pastoral staff who reflect that!
In your experience, what differences have you noticed between actual Christlikeness and religious forms of leadership today?