Public Criticism of Leaders

Part 15 in the Series:

Questioning Church Authority

By Don Enevoldsen

Risk is inherent in questioning authority. Jesus challenged the religious leadership of his day and they killed him. He openly taught contrary doctrine and publicly confronted directly those who placed unbearable burdens on the people they were supposed to lead, frequently by pointing out what they said and countering it with the truth. He publicly rebuked them and told everyone they were wrong. He showed no respect for their positions as the elders of Israel. He even argued with the high priest himself, rather than deferring to the honor of the office (John 18:19-23). He never met with any of them in private to give them a chance to repent before public humiliation, never went to them alone, then with another witness, then taking it public. In fact, the only private meeting we have record of was with Nicodemus, and Jesus didn’t initiate that.

In other words, Jesus did the exact opposite of everything we are told today we are supposed to do to honor our leaders and submit to their authority.

And they got angry.

The Gospels are filled with examples of public rebukes of leaders of Israel. In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus countered their questions by not only correcting them, but with public accusations that they “condemned the innocent” (verse 7).

Later in the same chapter, the leaders accused him of acting by the power of Beelzebub rather than God. He stated publicly that they had committed blasphemy (verses 31-32).

In Matthew 15:12, the leaders “were offended” by his public rebuke.

In Matthew 21:13, he publicly railed against their greed and their desire to use religious beliefs for personal gain.

In Matthew 23, an entire chapter is devoted to railing against their hypocrisy, all of it spoken “to the crowds and to his disciples.” The same public accusations are recorded in Luke 11:37-54.

In Mark 3:1-6, he publicly challenged their motives and humiliated them with such an intense level of anger and defiance that they began to plot how they could kill him.

In Mark 3:23, he “called them over to him,” and then publicly accused them of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

In Mark 3:31-35, he publicly called out his own mother when she was wrong.

In Mark 7:6-16, he publicly called them hypocrites and accused them of setting aside the commandments in order to observe their own traditions, thus openly and publicly challenging their teaching.

In Luke 13: 14-17, he publicly called the synagogue ruler a hypocrite. He publicly “humiliated” his opponents (verse 17).

In Luke 13:31-32, he publicly spoke against Herod.

In Luke 16:14-15, he publicly pointed out their hypocrisy.

In John 8:14-15, he publicly answered their challenge by accusing them of judging by human standards.

In John 9:40-41, he publicly accused leaders of being blind.

Jesus had no qualms about public challenges when authorities were wrong. Bring these things up, however, and invariably the response is, “Well, you’re not Jesus.”

These are the same people who preach that we shall do greater things than Jesus did (John 14:12) and that Jesus is to be our example (1 Peter 2:21-22). Apparently we’re only supposed to be like Jesus in ways that don’t threaten irresponsible leaders.

If you think that emulating Jesus is too high a goal, there is the example of Paul. He opposed one of the twelve duly appointed and anointed apostles. Peter (and Barnabas, for that matter, who was also technically Paul’s superior), was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14), and Paul saw nothing inappropriate in rebuking him publicly, “in front of them all.” He not only delivered the rebuke in public, he wrote about it in some detail for all of posterity. We’re still reading today about the Apostle Peter’s public humiliation.

“But,” the threatened leaders complain, “that was Paul. You’re not Paul.”

Do you see a pattern here? Speak against the established leadership when they are wrong, and you run a great risk. In most cases, abusive church systems will do anything, no matter how unethical or sometimes even illegal, to silence you. And they will twist Scripture to justify it.

One example of a man who dared to speak truth, in spite of direct orders from the leaders to submit to their authority, was the man born blind (John 9). He also illustrates the typical reaction when leaders don’t want to be publicly challenged.

Jesus healed the man by spitting in the dirt, forming mud with the saliva, and applying it to the man’s eyes. He then told the man to go to the pool of Siloam and wash it off. Naturally, since the man had been sitting and begging for decades, his sudden change of fortune attracted a great deal of notice. Some had difficulty believing it was the same person. All he could tell them was, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I cold see” (verse 11).

The people brought the man to the leaders. When he told his story, they refused to believe him, using misapplied Scripture to justify their position. “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (verse 16).

But people still saw the reality of the man’s changed life. The leaders questioned the man further. “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

“He is a prophet,” was the only thing the man could say.

But they still would not accept the truth. They called his parents in to make sure he was really the man who had been blind from birth. The parents replied that he was their son but they had no idea what happened. “Ask him,” they said. “He is of age; he will speak for himself.” They were among those who did not want to speak up because of the pressure of the abusive religious system.

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)

They questioned the man again, this time applying pressure to get him to answer the way they wanted him to. They could not tolerate people supporting this Jesus who persisted in publicly challenging their authority. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they told him. “We know this man is a sinner” (verse 24).

The man refused to submit to the pressure, but persisted in speaking what he knew.

“Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (verse 25).

They continued the pressure, desperate now to reverse the growing humiliation of their opposition to Jesus. They asked him again what Jesus did to him.

In response, the man began to apply a bit of public sarcasm of his own. “I have told you already and you did not listen.” Then he took a jab at them with a public comment that must have made the crowd laugh.

“Do you want to become his disciples too?” (verse 27)

Their response was a string of insults and the insistence that Jesus could not possibly be from God. “We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

Warming up to a crescendo of public sarcasm, the man threw away all chance that he would not be kicked out of the synagogue.

“Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (verses 30-33)

Predictably, the leaders got angry. They did not like public challenge or humiliation, especially from an uneducated pew warmer. “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!”

It is worth noting that the reason they claimed he was steeped in sin from birth was because he had been born blind. They claimed that his circumstances proved he was in sin. This was the issue that began the whole encounter. The disciples asked Jesus who had sinned to cause the man’s blindness (verse 2), and Jesus made it clear that they could not draw any conclusions from that kind of evidence.

The religious leaders, rather than repent and change, vented their anger against a simple man, a man who was not in any way considered a leader, but who dared to publicly challenge the leaders, and “they threw him out.” When leaders are wrong and you challenge them, publicly or otherwise, only two things can happen. Either they will repent and change, or they will expend great effort to silence you. Leaders who are wrong cannot tolerate criticism.

Of course, leaders should not always be attacked. Paul’s instructions to Timothy make it clear that those who serve well should be honored.

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17)

Two verses later, Paul cautioned against being too quick to judge leaders.

“Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:19)

People in positions of leadership are subject to all kinds of attacks and accusations. It is wisdom to tread carefully in the making of accusations. However, when a destructive and abusive pattern of behavior becomes apparent, not only should leaders be corrected and rebuked, it should be done publicly.

“But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:20)

There is a risk involved in speaking up. You will likely attract personal attacks from those who do not want to be exposed. Jesus did tell us that we can expect persecution when we serve him (John 15:20). What you might not have realized was that persecution usually comes from the religious leaders within the church. Jesus didn’t have to look to the Romans for opposition. He found it right in his own home.

Next, Part 16: Why Do People Stay in an Abusive Church?

Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

6 thoughts on “Public Criticism of Leaders

  1. Abusive systems are all the same. They can take anything to establish the pecking order. A man born blind isn’t on the same level as “Us”, a poor man isn’t equal to us, a man who disagrees with what “We” believe isn’t worthy of equal treatment… There are always things that disqualify some (most) from being treated well and those things are used as an excuse to abuse the “lesser”. It’s not just the leaders who perpetuate those beliefs. All those entrenched in the system know the rules of getting along within the system and they preach those rules to others. It’s hard to stand up to those things because it’s not just the wrath of the leaders that you incur, it’s the criticism and ostracization from the victims of the system too–many times the very ones who are being most harmed by the abuse of the leaders.

    Yes, there is risk in standing up to those things. There is every possibility of some kind of loss–sometimes, even loss of life. Jesus thought it was worth it and I’m inclined to agree. Don, thanks for this series of blogs and for crusading against abuse with me. That’s so hot! lol.
    Love,
    Your wife

    • You’re welcome. It is interesting that we spend so much time talking in church about the power of God to change people, yet we balk at the idea of changing the church itself when things in the church need very much to be changed. Hmmmm.

  2. Thanks, Don, for your excellent articles. The blind man was one of the first Bible characters I identified with after being hurt by those in authority. I think too often those in abusive or unhealthy religious groups forget-or ignore-that the priests WERE the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

    What is comforting about the blind man is that Jesus not only healed him, but sought him out and talked to him again after his interview with the priests. To my knowledge, this is the only person that Jesus healed that he went back to and sought out later. Others came back to him, but for him to seek someone out seems not to be noted often in scripture.

    • Excellent observations. First, you’re right about the priests. When you look at the overall beliefs of the scribes, Pharisees and the priests, compared to what Jesus taught, they were not that different on the surface. About the same kind of difference we find today between leaders who get it and leaders who abuse their authority. The Pharisees would fit right in today in a lot of places.

      The blind man is one of the most fascinating characters in the Gospels, for a lot of reasons, but I had not thought about the point you make here. His case does seem to be unusual, and I wonder if the reason Jesus sought him out was because he had been kicked out of the synagogue, and Jesus wanted to make sure he was on solid ground in terms of his faith. Might be more than just that, but I think that must have been a significant part of it.

  3. Don, a friend alerted me to your writings and while I have not yet been able to read them all, I have very much enjoyed those I have read in your Questioning Church Authority series.

    I have shared some of those on my Facebook page- http://www.facebook.com/pages/SpiritualAbuseOrg/108470765842875 – recently and have featured this one on two pages of my website on spiritual abuse where we are covering the situation at a church that has been unhealthy in its practices. http://www.spiritualabuse.org/experiences/lawsuits/edwin_young.html is the main one.

    Thank you for your well thought out writings on the issue. I am hoping that a number of my readers check out what you have to say.

    • Lois, thank you for your kind words and for sharing the link. From the amount of activity on the site, I am sure some of your readers at least are looking in, and I appreciate that very much. I’ve had a chance to look over your site. Keep up the good work you are doing as well.

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