the shape of leadership

Jesus vs. the Pharisees, Part 1

God calls us to servant leadership, not self-centered leadership

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were the religious leaders of the day. Today, the word “pharisee” often carries a negative connotation. It brings to mind someone who is hypocritical, arrogant or judgmental. But in Jesus’ day, people generally viewed Pharisees in a positive light.

Author and pastor Larry Osborne observed, “In Jesus’ day, being called a Pharisee was a badge of honor. It was a compliment, not a slam. That’s because first-century Pharisees excelled in everything we admire spiritually. They were zealous for God, completely committed to their faith. They were theologically astute, masters of the biblical texts. They fastidiously obeyed even the most obscure commands. They even made up extra rules just in case they were missing anything. Their embrace of spiritual disciplines was second to none.”

So, why do we so often view the Pharisees from a negative perspective? Could it be that some of the Pharisees had spirituality drifted toward a posture of pride — so much so that they even plotted to have Jesus put to death?

How does that happen? How do spiritual leaders become blinded by pride and leverage their influence in destructive ways? How do leaders with stellar spiritual devotion and disciplines drift into a leadership model that does more harm than good?

In Matthew 23, Jesus made a rather blunt and unapologetic diagnosis of the Pharisees. He indicted the behavior of these religious leaders and shot holes in their self-serving leadership approach. (Note that Jesus didn’t condemn all Pharisees. In fact, some Pharisees were sincere followers of Jesus, including Nicodemus, likely Joseph of Arimathea, and others who were present for the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15:5.)

Yet, as Jesus dismantled the leadership of these Pharisees, He saw no need to exalt His own leadership. Jesus simply demonstrated the right way to lead in how He lived. What was the difference between how Jesus led and how these Pharisees led? Consider the first three of six differentiators. (The second installment in this two-part series will cover the other three.)

Integrity vs. Corruption

In Matthew 23, Jesus describes many Pharisees like this: “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” (verses 1-3).

Jesus recognized the authority of the Pharisees as religious leaders and experts in the Law. But He also warned that some of these leaders didn’t practice what they preached. Pride had corrupted their lives. Jesus, on the other hand, was full of integrity. He didn’t just talk a good game; Jesus lived out His teachings.

Several years ago, while on a missions trip to Africa, a friend told me about an African Bible college president who was struggling to get his students to clean the restrooms in their dorm.

Everything Jesus did focused on helping others and glorifying His heavenly Father.

One day, the president showed up and began cleaning the restrooms with his bare hands. As he knelt down and scrubbed the toilets, the students insisted that he stop. They were embarrassed and apologized profusely to the president, but he refused to quit. Finally, after finishing his task, he looked at his students and said, “If I, being the president of this college, can clean these toilets with my bare hands, then surely you can do the same with gloves.”

This leader wasn’t just asking his students to do a dirty job. He modeled the way. He lived with integrity. His leadership style was like the apostle Paul’s: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

If we want to be servant leaders, we must be willing to lead by example. It starts with integrity.

Helping vs. Hurting

Jesus continued, “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 23:4).

These Pharisees were quick to demand perfection. They knew all the rules and didn’t mind telling people if they weren’t making the cut. The problem was, their ambition for righteousness had turned into a list of unbearable demands. In the end, they were only hurting the people they were called to serve.

Servant leaders like Jesus take a different approach. They see leadership as a position for helping rather than a platform for hurting. They don’t leverage their authority to add to the burden, but to relieve the burden. One of the simplest and most powerful questions you can ask the people you lead is, “How can I help?”

It’s a practical way to ensure your leadership isn’t causing grief or pain.

Humility vs. Pride

I believe pride was the greatest downfall for this set of Pharisees. Matthew 23:5 says, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.” Simply put, these Pharisees had slowly drifted toward a desire for prominence and praise. Unlike Jesus, they had no humility.

What is humility? It’s dethroning the attitude of self-promotion, and embracing the action of selfless serving. Author John Dickson says, “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself … the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.”

We know pride is a destructive force. It sat in the driver’s seat of the Pharisees’ leadership. Jesus, on the other hand, ministered out of a spirit of humility. He was moved with compassion as He healed the sick and served those the Pharisees condemned. Everything Jesus did focused on helping others and glorifying His heavenly Father.

Humility allows you to assume that posture with pure motives. How would your leadership stack up against these two types of leadership? Jesus served with integrity, helpfulness and humility. Some of the Pharisees had become corrupt, hurtful and prideful. It’s a clear contrast between servant leadership and self-centered leadership.

In my next article, I’ll share three additional differentiators in these two approaches to leadership. Until then, consider this question: Does your current leadership path look more like that of Jesus or these Pharisees?

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