Jesus on Toxic Leadership

The topic of leadership culture is getting a lot of attention at the moment, no doubt because of examples where leadership is abused and unhealthy practices are happening in spiritual settings. The conversation is not a new one, and it is something that Jesus addressed with the religious leaders of his own day. Matthew 23 is an extended discourse where Jesus critiques their toxic leadership practices. Many of the issues he raises have a very contemporary ring to them, and help us see what unhealthy (and by contrast healthy) church leadership culture looks like.

Some of the things he draws attention to are:

Hypocrisy (v3): The issue is not with what they are teaching per se, but with their failure to put it into practice. Often we can be surprised to hear stories of abuse in church contexts because we have found the teaching from that church or leader helpful, but Jesus points out that good teaching is not enough. As he says in Matthew 7:20, ‘you will know them by their fruits’.

Harshness (v4): People have heavy demands placed on them with little regard for what their circumstances might be or what is needed to help them. These demands could be in the areas of discipleship, serving or giving, and are taken to extremes that wear people out and drag them down. By comparison, Jesus’ own yoke if easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:30).

Performative Spirituality (v5): When these leaders did do the right things, it was all for show. They were more concerned about their reputation with others than they were about the good deeds themselves. In an age of social media, it can be easy for the pastor to become a brand, for preachers to have the internet in mind rather than congregation, and for leaders to turn people into commodities in order to make themselves look impressive.

Celebrity and Status (v6-12): They wanted to be known and respected as authorities and celebrities. When church becomes a show and people are taught by those who they only know from a curated presentation on a stage but have no relationship with, it removes the incarnational dimension to ministry in which people are known, and undoes the reformation emphasis on the priesthood of all believers by instead creating a protestant celebrity priestly class.

Gatekeeping (v13): These leaders were quick to declare who was in and out of the kingdom and would draw lines to exclude different groups of people. One of the common themes we see in the gospel narratives is Jesus reaching around the lines that others have drawn to bring those who had been excluded into the kingdom of God.

Financial Abuse (v14): Leaders would line their own pockets at the expense of the vulnerable (widows in this case). A common feature of unhealthy or abusive culture is where we see leaders gaining disproportionate financial rewards whilst making high giving demands, even on those who cannot afford it. (Note – whilst there is dispute over whether this verse was in the original manuscript of Matthew, there is no dispute about the same thing being said in Mark and Luke, and it is received as a genuine teaching from the mouth of Jesus either way).

Narrow Sectarianism (v15): The Pharisees put a lot of effort into making converts, which is a good thing, but when they did their focus was to train them up in their own particular distinctives, which Jesus described as making them ‘twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’. In other words, they had a narrow sectarian mindset that was more focussed on spreading their own group identity than the kingdom of God, and they wanted everyone to become just like them.

Loose Relationship With Truth (v16-22): A system had been developed to differentiate between oaths that needed to be kept and oaths that didn’t, meaning a space was created where lies were acceptable. Truth-telling is kryptonite to toxic cultures, and when the leadership culture is not healthy there can be an effort made to spread false narratives, or silence those who have inconvenient stories to tell, or spin things to protect reputations.

Majoring on Minor Things (v23-24): It was not bad that the pharisees tithed from their herbs and spices, but they had focussed on a trivial thing and missed the much more important matters of justice, mercy and faith. Often in toxic environments, secondary issues can be elevated and turned into things of primary importance, whilst things that truly matter are overlooked.

Superficiality (v25-28): Through a couple of illustrations, Jesus highlights how the scribes and Pharisees focussed on making the externals look good but underneath the surface things were rotten. It is a problem when outward appearance becomes the priority rather than true inward reality. Unhealthy leaders will usually seem like they are doing things right from a distance, and it takes time to realise that all is not well underneath the surface.

Brutality (v29-35): Though the Pharisees like to put themselves on the right side of history, Jesus compares them to their ancestors who shed the blood of prophets (and indeed this is just what they end up doing with Jesus himself). Being willing to damage others who they see as a threat is the ultimate sign of dysfunctional leaders, and this can range from the physical blood-shedding described here to things such as reputational attacks, destroying a person’s community, or going after them financially. People are treated as enemies to take down, and the irony is that it is often those so-called ‘enemies’ who are prophetically speaking truth to power.