Woe to the Pharaohsees

In Matthew 23, Jesus gives a critique of the spiritually abusive leaders of his day. The issues he highlights are soberingly familiar, and speak with a powerful voice into the current day conversation about toxic leadership culture.

In recent months, I have found myself reading this chapter again and again, and I have been particularly drawn to verse 4: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulder of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Something about this verse felt familiar, but it was only last week that I realised Jesus was drawing on imagery from Exodus 5.

The Exodus narrative tells the story of Pharaoh imposing burdens on the people. He was harsh with them, he would not let them take time to rest, and he thought the worst of them. He imposed heavy demands on their productivity, but refused to supply even the basic materials to enable them to do what was asked of them. When people fell short, they were disciplined and beaten.

Jesus is saying that there is a version of spiritual leadership that looks like the way Pharaoh treated the Israelites. When leaders treat those under their care with heavy demands and little help, we not only are acting like the Pharisees, but like the Pharaoh before them.

There are many ways this can play out:

Time Expectations – When we cast vision for the different things we do, how much are we expecting from people, and how does this work for those who are not on church staff? Are our expectations for how much time people give reasonable, sustainable and healthy? Are our programs and activities making life easier or harder for those with full time jobs, young families, caring responsibilities, or other demanding commitments?

Facilitating Change – There will always be times where a person’s behaviours are not where they need to be, but how do we help them change? Is our framework primarily built around rebuke, where we are quick to point out what somebody is doing wrong and demand change? Or can we see past the actions to what might be causing it, and help the person on a journey of healing and growth?

Preaching – What is the balance between stick and carrot in our preaching? How much of it places burdens on shoulders by highlighting where people fall short and what they ought to do, and how much lifts burdens and draws people gently to rest on Jesus’ grace for them?

Spiritual Disciplines and Privilege – It is fashionable at the moment to talk about spiritual disciplines like solitude and silence, but do we recognise that certain practices assume a level of affluence. A three-day silence retreat is not viable for many people in our congregations! Do we set the expectation of spiritual practice in a way that feels like bricks without straw? How can we encourage spiritual practices in ways that help everyone in our congregation connect with God?

Pace of Integration – When someone new joins the church, it is natural to want them to get involved quickly, and for some people this is exactly what they need. But what about the person who has come out of a bruising experience somewhere else? Is there room for people to find their way in at their own pace, to find space to heal and figure things out without the pressure of heavy demands?

Financial Giving – Encouraging people to be generous is a good thing, but some ways of doing it are better than others. Do we make giving feel like a dutiful obligation? Do we expect people to give to a level that leaves them in a bad place financially? Or do we want to help and encourage people into financial health, including offering support with budgeting, saving, spending, hardship funds where necessary, and seeing generous giving as one aspect of a thriving whole.

What other ways do you see where our leadership feels like asking people to make bricks without giving them straw?