[This post was initially delivered in the form of a sermon. To listen to the sermon, click here.]
Is it ever proper to correct the religious leaders of the day? Was such a practice only proper in the first century—when Jesus and John the Baptist called into question the faithfulness of the religious leaders of their day? Or is there ever a time for us to say that the professing evangelical and Reformed church is out of step with Scripture? Is it ever proper to hold up the practices of the religious leaders of our day to the Word of God?
If we say, “no,” then we are saying that the professing evangelical and Reformed church can never stray, can never err. We are saying that she can never be in danger of worldliness. If we cannot correct the professing church, then the church can never be wrong. That sounds more like Roman Catholicism than biblical Christianity.
Some people will argue that in writing what I write, I am offending the leaders of the professing church. They will label a post like this as “in-fighting” or uncharitable. I think they are quite wrong. Judgment begins with the house of God. If Christians cannot police themselves or clean house, then we are in no position to call a watching world to repent. Seeking to maintain some sort of “quasi-unity” in order to appear as if the church is united is not what biblical unity is.
Others will say this is a private matter that should be dealt with behind closed doors. I disagree. We are talking about the professing evangelical and Reformed church and her leaders. The messages they are sending and the practices they are encouraging are being broadcasted to a watching world. It behooves all Christians to tell a watching world that so much of what they are seeing is not in step with the Bible. (Frankly, I’m embarrassed by so much of what I’ve seen by the professing church—cancelling services, telling congregants to stay six feet away from their brothers and sisters in Christ, etc. And it’s not simply that this was a moment of weakness—church leaders consciously made these decisions and then did not repent of them.)
Also, consider the fact that Jesus openly critiqued the respected religious leaders of his day. And it is not as if Jesus was the only one who critiqued the Pharisees. Sometimes, I’ll hear, “Well, Jesus critiqued the Pharisees, but he was the only one with authority to do that because he knew them perfectly; therefore you do not have authority to critique the religious leaders of our day.” The problem with that is that not only did Jesus critique them, but so also did John the Baptist. And not only did John the Baptist oppose them, but so too did the apostles in the sense that they refused to obey them and called into question their faithfulness to God when they said that they would disobey the religious leaders in order to obey God (cf. Acts 4:19). Many Christians this past year have had to not only disobey the government, but also their pastors in order to obey God.
When John the Baptist and Jesus critiqued the scribes and Pharisees, it is interesting that the main offense the religious leaders took was simply that they were being corrected. They didn’t really deal with the actual critique: their offense was mainly in the simple fact that they were being critiqued. One of my favorite lines comes from Luke 11 when one of the lawyers (a scholar of Torah) responds to Jesus’ woes on the Pharisees. The lawyer answers Jesus, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also” (Luke 11:45). He sort of says, “Hey, you seem to be implying that we could be sinning too.” What does Jesus say? “Sorry, I didn’t mean to include you in this statement, I am simply making a general statement, I don’t mean to question your faithfulness.” No! He says, “Woe to you lawyers also!” (Luke 11:46).
What I have found is that when the professing church—and I am not talking here about liberal churches that have long ago abandoned the gospel, those are not even churches—but when the professing church is critiqued by any number of voices from within her ranks, the response from church leaders is often something along the lines of, “You are suggesting that we are in sin,” or, “You are saying that we didn’t follow the Bible when we made our decision”—as if to say that to make such an accusation is by default unwarranted, or that it is unchristian to even suggest such a thing. The critique is often only addressed in a superficial manner, and the focus is rather on the fact that they were critiqued. I have seen this at the level of small local churches and at the larger level of critiques against the broader evangelical and Reformed church.
We’ve seen this in 2020-2021. Many Christians called on the professing church and her leaders to repent of the sin of ceasing to meet in the name of Jesus, or of forcing congregants to bow to the state when it comes to assembling. Many of the responses by church leaders were along the lines of: “You are saying that all these churches that stopped meeting sinned.” “You are saying that they didn’t put God’s Word first.” “You are saying that they conformed to the world.” Yes, that is exactly what we are saying. Simply stating that the critique implies that sin could be involved does not make it void. If the professing church cannot understand that she is susceptible to worldliness and sin, and even apostasy, then she truly is blind. But, again, it wouldn’t be the first time that religious leaders were blind guides leading the blind (cf. Matthew 15:12).
It reminds me of a church I was in years ago. In sharing some concerns from the Bible, the general response I got was not, “Hey, let’s look to God’s Word on this because it is certainly at least possible that we are in error,” rather, it was, “You’re suggesting that this church needs to be reformed more,” or. “You’re suggesting that we don’t follow the Bible in this area.” Yes! That was exactly what I was suggesting. However, the very idea of the professing church and her leaders being challenged to be more faithful to the Bible is frowned upon. It is almost a non-starter.
These things ought not be so. The professing church and her leaders must never become so comfortable that they think they are immune to straying from the Bible in practice or doctrine.
I think part of the solution to this problem is for us to better understand the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and how he viewed them. We often think of the Pharisees as a group of people that were viewed by the people as hypocritical leaders or false teachers. This was not the case. I think if we better understand how they were viewed and why Jesus critiqued them, we can form a better understanding of the dangers facing the religious leaders of our day.
So, let’s consider the “blind guides” of Jesus’ day. By looking at Matthew 15 and Matthew 23, I will briefly point out four things about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. For each point I will make application to the religious leaders of our day.
1. They sat “on Moses’ seat”—they taught the truth; they are orthodox, not liberal, in theology (Matt. 23:2)
Note, first of all, that the scribes and Pharisees were people whose teaching Jesus commended! He told his followers to do whatever they said (Matthew 23:2-3)! You see, the scribes and Pharisees were not the religious liberals of the day. They were not viewed by faithful Jews as unqualified leaders. They were respected, honored, and revered—much like many of the Reformed authors, conference speakers, and church leaders who led the way in cancelling church.
The Pharisees were the religious conservatives who held to God’s Word and sought to guide and protect the people from spiritual error. They were the graduates from the Reformed theology seminaries, if you will. The equivalent of the scribes and Pharisees today would not be a Rob Bell or a Bart Ehrman or a United Church leader or a fundamentalist Arminian preacher proclaiming a false gospel.
The closest corollary today would be the Reformed and evangelical leaders who have the gospel of grace correct, who rightly taught about the saints’ duty to obey God in all things—those whom Jesus would say, “practice and observe whatever they tell you” (but not necessarily what they do)! I don’t question the fact that the Reformed church leaders teach right doctrine. They previously taught about the duty of the saints to assemble, no matter what.
I’ve written more about this elsewhere, but it is not as if these churches didn’t believe that God had commanded them to meet. John MacArthur, who immediately cancelled services, who said that it was an “easy decision” to stop gathering in the name of Jesus, had previously written that, “collective and corporate worship [is] a vital part of spiritual life.” And even while openly saying it was an “easy decision” to cancel church, he acknowledged that “God says we must meet.”
Again, this was the consistent teaching within the Reformed church. They did teach the correct doctrine. Years ago, long before COVID, R.C. Sproul taught about the command to gather together, even calling on wives to disobey the authority of their husbands if the husband forbade the wife from assembling with the saints:
I don’t know how many times I have women say to me, “I’m trying to be submissive to my husband, but my husband won’t allow me to go to church. What should I do?” I said, “You go to church on Sunday morning. You disobey your husband. Because God commands you not to forsake the assembling together of the saints.” And here is one case where not only may you disobey, but you must disobey. And then try to win [your husband] with your love and subjection the rest of the week.
Sproul was being consistent with the Christian worldview. He was accuractely applying the doctrine to life. He also said:
If any ruler—a governing official or body, schoolteacher, boss, or military commander—commands you to do something God forbids or forbids you from doing something God commands, not only may you disobey, but you must disobey. If it comes down to a choice like this, you must obey God.
Christians would have been wise to follow Jesus’ advice regarding the religious leaders: “practice what they say, but don’t do what they do.” When the COVID compromise occurred, Christians should have listened to the teaching of the Reformed church prior to the outbreak.
For years, many ordinary Christians within the church have been calling for a more faithful conformity to what is taught by church leaders. The professing Reformed church proclaims that the gospel of grace is the only true gospel, and then takes it easy on false gospels. The professing Reformed church says it believes, as Spurgeon did, that Calvinism is the gospel, and then it beats around the bush in calling out false doctrine. The professing church claims to be “together for the gospel,” or united in a “gospel coalition,” but then is not even firm on the gospel of grace when it comes to teaching it with clarity, precision, and discrimination against false doctrine. These are all signs of a disconnect between beliefs and practice. This disconnect became painfully obvious when the Reformed church at large bowed to the state and cancelled church.
So, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and our day both taught the correct thing, but then they didn’t do it.
2. In practice, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day placed other things (tradition, the teachings of man) above the Word of God (Matt. 15:4-9).
The Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, claimed to hold to God’s Word above all else. These would have been the ones hosting the conference on Scripture and faithfulness to God. But they had a tendency to place other things above Scripture. In Jesus’ day it was tradition, things that men had said were important. In seeking to be faithful to God and his Word, they actually disregarded God’s Word for the sake of their tradition.
In Matthew 15, Jesus points out that they had a clear command from God: “Honor your father and your mother.” But the problem with the Pharisees here was that while they acknowledged that command from God, they turned around and encouraged the people to disobey it by introducing another standard: “But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father'” (Matthew 15:5).
The majority of church leaders of our day did the same thing this past year. They acknowledged the command from God—the church must meet—and then they prevented the people from obeying it by introducing some other standard—a doctrine of man (whether from some council of pastors, or the CDC, or the governor’s office). In cancelling the assembly of saints on the Lord’s Day, the professing church has used the excuse of “We were submitting to the government, as the Bible tells us to.” But the true church has historically (and correctly) understood that we must obey God first.
God commands his people to gather together in fellowship. For centuries, Christians believed this, and even at great risk to themselves, even in opposition to government mandates, they choose to gather. As we have seen, even church leaders that capitulated and stopped meeting said they believed this. Then, with the world watching in 2020-2021, the professing evangelical and Reformed church—with the exception of a faithful remnant—capitulated and ceased meeting as churches. They gave up on gathering together in the name of Jesus. They stopped coming together because of a concern for sickness, or a concern for a fine, or a concern to be viewed a certain way. Whatever the reason, they cancelled church. As the world watched, the professing church put fellowship and the clear direction from God’s Word aside and elevated the doctrines of men instead.
3. They said they believed one thing, and then they did something else in practice—in other words, they were hypocrites (Matt. 23:27-28).
Jesus called the religious leaders of his day hypocrites. He didn’t do this because they were charlatans or slick shysters. They were hypocrites because their practices did not conform to what they taught. Again, the Pharisees didn’t come out and say they didn’t believe in God’s Word. They appeared righteous to others. They were ostensibly the best examples of faithfulness and orthodoxy of the day. When you think of the Pharisees, think of the group of religious leaders today that you must respect—think of the graduates of the Reformed seminaries. That’s how the Pharisees were viewed. But they were hypocrites! (At least most of them—and this is a justification for painting with a broad brush on occasion. Some Pharisees were genuine—just like some church leaders today did not cancel church. They stand as examples to the rest.) And many of the evangelical and Reformed leaders today are hypocrites. They don’t practice what they preach.
Regarding the assembly of the saints, it was not as if the professing Reformed church had no idea what was at stake here. It was not as if they had never thought about the idea of authorities forbidding something God commands. And it was not as if they didn’t believe that God commanded the saints to gather. They said they believed this, and then they acted differently. That is at least a form of hypocrisy, by any honest standard. Hypocrisy: “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform.”
If the immediate response from a church leader who cancelled services is, “Hey, you are accusing me of hypocrisy? How uncharitable and un-Christlike,” then we have a problem. The professing church and her leaders are not open to correction and reform. The response of the professing evangelical and Reformed church reminds me very much of the scribes and Pharisees in the first century.
Even before the COVID compromise, many of these churches claimed to be Reformed, claimed to have the gospel, but hid it under a lampstand. And now, their true colors have come out even more clearly. I know I am not a prophet, but the writing is on the wall: the professing evangelical and Reformed church is good at preaching doctrine, but bad at living it out. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, they know what to say, but they do not practice what they preach. And as such, the world sees a confusing display of Christianity.
4. They revered those who went before them in “church history,” but did not follow in their footsteps (Matt. 23:29-31).
The Pharisees admired the prophets that had unflinchingly stood for faithfulness to God. The Pharisees respected those who would not capitulate to the world or undermine the Word of God. Again, they had a lot of things right. They would be like those today who write the books about John Knox and William Bradford. They would be like those today who talk about how the Reformers stood on the Word of God against the world. They would be like those today who admired the first-century Christians for refusing to cancel church, even at great risk to themselves. They would be like those people today, who say all those things, and then, when it comes to their own lives and our own day, they abandon the way of righteousness and faithfulness.
This has been one of the most embarrassing things about the church’s compromise in cancelling church. I don’t want to hear from these church leaders about examples of faithfulness in the past if they have no desire to follow in their footsteps.
Warning for Our Day
There are uncanny similarities between the Pharisees and the leaders of the professing evangelical and Reformed church. Both groups taught the correct doctrine, both groups then strayed from that doctrine in practice, putting another standard higher than God’s Word, and both groups said they admired those who went before them, only to do the exact opposite.
These warnings were written for our instruction and the church leaders of our day would be wise to heed them. If the professing evangelical and Reformed church does not wake up and realize she has sinned, then we will continue to be led by blind guides.
I can understand and accept a Christian failing to honor Christ in a moment of weakness, if he or she is broken over that failure and desirous to honor Christ no matter the cost. But I cannot accept a conscious decision to give up on doing what God requires because doing so will cost us something. That is not a religion I want to be part of and those are not religious leaders I want to follow. Furthermore, the loving thing to do is to warn others about such blind guides.
If I wrote about the errors of Rob Bell, or the errors of liberal “churches” (not true churches) that have accepted the sin of homosexuality, if I wrote about those “church” leaders, no one within the professing Reformed church would raise an eyebrow. But they’ve forgotten that when Jesus critiqued the Pharisees (which he did often!), he did not do so because it was widely accepted that these were the false teachers. Jesus spoke so much about the Pharisees because the people did respect them. You see? He spoke so forcefully because not only were the leaders blind, but the people had been blinded too.
If we do not understand that the leaders within even the Reformed church can be blind guides, then we are in great danger of the same errors that plagued the people in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees had so much influence that they were able to persuade the people to kill Jesus. The Reformed leaders of our day had enough influence to persuade a great many to neglect the assembly of the saints. These things ought not to be so. There is a place for religious leaders, but every Christian must take the Word of God and judge the teaching and practices of such leaders.
May the Lord be pleased to grant us a new reformation, in which he will raise up leaders who will stand on his Word, who will practice what they preach, who will follow in the steps of faithful Christians from the past.