the shape of leadership

When Preaching Goes Bad

What Matthew 23 teaches about content and character

George P Wood on November 29, 2022


Preaching is a moral act. God will hold us accountable for what we say. That is why James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

Judgment need not imply only guilt, however. In Acts 20:26–27, Paul tells the Ephesians, “I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will [or counsel] of God.” Paul’s words show it is possible to preach truly and well.

As preachers, then, we need to know what distinguishes guilty preaching from innocent preaching. Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13–32 identifies seven ways preaching goes bad. The first four ways pertain to the content of a sermon, while the last three pertain to the character of the preacher.

Let us consider each in turn.

1. Blocking the gospel. In verse 13, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

The phrase “kingdom of heaven” summarizes Jesus’ gospel (Matthew 4:17). “Enter” language is shorthand for experiencing salvation (23:13). According to Jesus, then, the Pharisees obstruct the gospel, neither believing it personally nor letting others receive it.

Of course Pharisees block the gospel! But Christian preachers?

My niece attended evangelical churches and schools growing up. Only in her junior year of high school did she learn God saves us by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8–9). This was a revelation to her.

I asked what those institutions had been teaching her the entire time, and she answered, “Behavior modification.”

When we do not preach God’s grace, we end up emphasizing works. Works don’t save us, however. They don’t enable us to enter the Kingdom.

Putting the gospel front and center in preaching is an ethical imperative.

2. Shifting the focus of discipleship. “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert,” Jesus says, “and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).

Jesus is likely referring to Jewish efforts to induce Gentile God-fearers to convert to Judaism, which involved circumcision (for males), kosher diet, and Sabbath observance. Since the Pharisees blocked people from experiencing salvation, all they could offer converts was a religious and cultural identity.

They shifted the focus of discipleship from life in the Kingdom to assuming a particular cultural identity. This remains a problem for Christian preachers today.

In an article about missionary Alice Luce, Darrin Rodgers wrote: “Luce warned against conflating Christianity with a particular culture or nation. When India rejected British colonial rule, Luce noted, many Indians rejected Christianity because they viewed it as ‘a white man’s religion.’”

Making the gospel about cultural identity hinders evangelism and distorts discipleship. The Kingdom has plenty of room for cultural diversity (Galatians 3:28; Revelation 7:9).

3. Encouraging double talk. In Matthew 23:16–17, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?”

Making promises is easy. Keeping them is hard. So it’s natural to look for a way out of our obligations.

The Pharisees provided a way out by distinguishing between levels of obligation. The problem is this encourages double talk. You seem to make a promise, but your precise wording lets you off the hook.

Years ago, while filling in as a guest speaker, I preached on helping the poor. Afterward, a young homeless man in attendance approached me for help.

My brain ran through multiple excuses: I neither worked at the church nor had access to its benevolence funds. The pastor had already left. I was on my way to a birthday party.

We should never force church members to choose between following what we preach or following what we practice.

I ended up taking the young man to the party with me and giving him a place to stay that night. Why? Because I took my own words to heart.

Ministers should encourage and exemplify sincerity of speech, not double talk.

4. Majoring on minors. “You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin,” Jesus warns the Pharisees. “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

According to Jewish tradition, the Law contains 613 commandments. God inspired them all, but not all have the same weight. Both the Pharisees and Jesus acknowledged this (Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:32–33; Luke 10:25–28).

The problem is weighty commands are the hardest ones to keep. So we emphasize what is easier to do. Like the Pharisees, we major on minors.

My grandparents pastored small churches throughout America in the mid-20th century. Back then, many Pentecostals felt it was worldly to own a TV. Grandpa stashed his in the closet whenever deacons came around.

Sadly, few white Pentecostals at the time felt as strongly about the wrongness of racial segregation. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, but white Pentecostals were largely silent about it. Black Pentecostals didn’t have that luxury.

Denouncing TV but remaining silent on racism seems like a clear example of majoring on the minors. Our preaching needs to emphasize the Bible’s weightiest commandments.

5. Impure motives. Jesus’ fifth woe switches from bad content in preaching to bad character in preachers. “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence,” He says (Matthew 23:25).

In recent years, some high-profile Christian leaders have discredited themselves and their ministries through moral failures. Some were dictatorial and abusive, while others misused church funds or committed sexual offenses.

These leaders left pain and confusion in their wake. Some followers even lost faith. Like a stone dropped in a pond, moral failure has rippling effects.

As preachers, we want our church members to perceive us as godly, orthodox, and morally upright. It’s possible to fake these things in the short term. In the long run, however, character is destiny (Luke 6:45). That’s why we must guard our hearts.

6. Not practicing what you preach. Hypocrisy runs like a thread through Matthew 23.

The word hypocrites appears in six of Jesus’ seven “Woe to you” statements (verses 13,15,23,25,27,29). In verse 3, Jesus warns His disciples, “Do not do what [Pharisees] do, for they do not practice what they preach.” And in verse 28, He tells the Pharisees, “You appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

As a father, I want my children to do what I say. I notice, however, they are more likely to do what I do. If I am calm, they are. If I yell, they do.

The obvious lesson for preachers is that church members follow our examples, not merely our words. Hypocrisy hinders discipleship, while integrity furthers it.

We should never force church members to choose between following what we preach or following what we practice.

7. Imagined righteousness. Jesus quotes the Pharisees as saying, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (verse 30).

Have you noticed when we read the Bible, we tend to put ourselves on the right side, spiritually and morally? We’re Israelites, not Canaanites. We worship Yahweh, not idols. We’re Jesus’ disciples, not Pharisees — and certainly not Roman soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross.

Ironically, our imagined righteousness is a Pharisee move. If the Pharisees would have been friendly to the prophets, why did they oppose Jesus — who was the whole point of prophecy? Believing we’re superior, we assume we wouldn’t make the mistakes others have made, whether past or present.

Good preaching begins by acknowledging we’re not better than our listeners. We’re not even as good as we think we are. We need to pray what David prayed: “I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me” (Psalm 40:17).

The gospel starts with our need for God, and so does the character of the preacher. To borrow a phrase from D.T. Niles, preaching is simply one beggar telling another where to find bread.

That is the moral imperative of preaching for which God will hold us accountable.


This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Influence magazine.

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