RESPONSIBILITIES OF LEADERS AND FOLLOWERS We discuss the responsibilities of leaders and followers through a study of Christ’s rebuke of the teachers of the law in the Seven Woes. He advised the people to honor and heed the teachers but to abhor their lifestyle. He recognized the authority of the teachers but rebuked them for not living according to their interpretations and teaching.
We discuss the responsibilities of leaders and followers based on Christ’s rebuke of teachers of the law in the “Seven Woes” [Matthew 23:1–36]. He rebuked the teachers for not living according to their interpretations and teaching of the law but did not question their authority. He rebuked them for interpreting the law and scriptures for others but making no effort to follow their own teaching. He also rebuked them for focusing on displaying for others to win honor and respect for themselves; and, as a result, misleading people that looked up to them.
Though he rebuked them for such behavior, he did not try to undermine their authority in any way. Instead, he emphasized to his disciples and others that they have to respect and obey the teachers of the law because they represented the authority of Moses among Israelites [Matthew 23:2–3]: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” Therefore, in this interaction with his disciples, teachers of the law, and others, Christ taught about our responsibilities to respect and obey our leaders and the responsibilities of leaders to practice what they teach so that others may learn through their living.
Teachers of the Law
The teachers of the law are people that were educated in the body of laws God gave to the Israelites through Moses, at times referred to as the Law of Moses and available in the present-day bible in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The teachers of the law are experts in these laws and their interpretations. They also are experts in the body of writings by prophets, at times referred to as the Scriptures.
The teachers of the law teach and interpret the law and scriptures, make rulings based on the interpretation, were recognized as having the authority of Moses, and were at times in charge of law enforcement. For example, a famous and zealous teacher of the law, Saul, was on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem to hunt down and arrest members of “the Way” [Acts 9:2] when he had an encounter with Christ and was converted.
The teachers of the law developed into two different sects, Pharisees and Sadducees, based on differences in basic understanding and belief. “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things” [Acts 23:8]. The Pharisees and Sadducees—in general, teachers of the law—were leaders of society, because of their role in teaching and interpreting the law and scriptures, making rulings based on the interpretation, and enforcing the law.
Christ’s Message Regarding Teachers of the Law
Christ reminded the crowd and his disciples that teachers of the law inherited the leadership role of Moses among Israelites: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat…” [Matthew 23:2]. Like Moses, they represent a constituted authority under God. Therefore, they deserve every person’s attention, respect, and obedience. “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you” [Matthew 23:3]. As we discussed in a previous bible study under Civil Rights and Responsibilities Part 2, respect for authority is part of God’s mandate and a key aspect of Christian responsibilities to society. Paul explained this further in his letter to the Romans several years later [Romans 13:1–7], and Peter in his epistle [1 Peter 2:13-18].
People in authority positions (such as president or prime minister, king or queen, governor, clergy, teacher, supervisor, parent, or any person in a position of leadership) help to preserve and propagate natural order and are God’s channels for advancing a sense of goodness and protecting the good elements of society from the bad. Therefore, we honor God when we respect human authorities. Christ emphasized this aspect of human relationships in his message to the disciples and other people regarding their interactions with teachers of the law. However, the responsibility to respect their authority and heed their teachings and interpretations does not necessarily imply a call to follow their living. Christ knows the teachers of the law did not live according to their teaching. Therefore, he told the people they should not emulate the lifestyle of the teachers.
Therefore, through this message, Christ reminds us about respect for the law and customs and for the people that have authority to interpret, teach, or enforce the law and customs. We have to respect and obey their teachings and interpretations. However, we do not follow their lifestyle if they do not practice what they teach. That is, the responsibilities of a follower include making a decision to emulate or abhor the leader’s lifestyle based on the follower’s assessment of whether the leader lives according to his/her interpretations and teachings. Christ made the assessment for the people and provided direct instruction based on his assessment. He still makes the assessment and gives the instruction to us today. However, each person has to listen to him, to hear his instruction.
Christ Rebukes Teachers of the Law
Having exhorted the people about their responsibilities as followers, he turned to the teachers of the law and rebuked them for failing in their responsibilities as leaders. He did not question their interpretations and rulings. They have the authority of Moses, as he noted. Therefore, they should be relied upon to provide valid interpretations and rulings based on the law and scriptures.
However, he rebuked them for inconsistent application of the law to themselves and their followers, living for the purpose of winning praise and admiration from people, misleading their followers, focusing on winning converts without doing enough to lead them, emphasizing the worldly value of things while ignoring their spiritual significance, interpreting God’s law to support traditional practices but forgetting the purpose of the law, and promoting a symbolic repudiation of past sins without any real effort at advancing repentance from the sins. Each aspect of the rebuke (at times referred to as the “seven woes”) has an application to present-day human interactions and relationships as we try to identify in the following.
INCONSISTENT INTERPRETATION OF THE LAW He rebuked the teachers of the law for interpreting the law differently for other people than for themselves. They provided at times heavy-handed interpretations of the law for others but made no attempt to apply the interpretations to themselves: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” [Matthew 23:4]. We encountered an example of this behavior in a previous bible study under Motivation for Righteousness, where Christ rebuked a synagogue leader that objected to healing a woman on the Sabbath but approved of the leadership class attending to the needs of their domestic animals on the same Sabbath [Luke 13:10–17]. The responsibilities of a leader include ensuring transparency of the conditions for application of his/her interpretations, teachings, or enforcement of any laws, regulations, or customs. Any person in authority position (e.g., parent, teacher, pastor, king, queen, or any person in a position to be looked up to for direction) has a responsibility to refrain from any behavior that is inconsistent with laws or rules that he/she enforces on other people. Such behavior could erode confidence in the authority and the system it represents.
LIVING FOR PUBLIC DISPLAY He rebuked the teachers of the law for focusing on seeking admiration and honor for themselves. He gave example with their wearing wide phylacteries (leather patches with inscriptions of the law) and long tassels to promote themselves as religious leaders while ignoring the essence of these symbols. He ascribed their behavior to hypocrisy and likened it to cleaning “the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” [Matthew 23:25] or “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” [Matthew 23:27].
As we discussed in a previous bible study under Keeping Watch by Living in the Image of God, God creates every person (leaders and followers alike) to live in his image such that our behavior in every human interaction is a manifestation of the Godliness of our inner heart. A leader’s interactions with other people should manifest a deep-routed belief in the rules and principles that he/she propagates to the people under his/her leadership. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for focusing on public display to win personal honor and recognition.
MISLEADING FOLLOWERS He rebuked the teachers of the law for shutting “the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” thus preventing others as well as themselves from entering [Matthew 23:25]. Such could result from either a sinful but alluring life that directs faithful followers away from God or a sinful and noxious life that discourages less-faithful followers from seeking God.
As we discussed in a previous bible study under Sin Repentance and Forgiveness in Human Interaction, Christ admonished against actions or behavior that tempt other people to turn away from God [Luke 17:1–2]: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Every person, whether in a formal leadership position or in other kinds of human interaction, has a responsibility to refrain from actions or behavior that could mislead people that look up to them. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for being a channel for temptation to their followers.
WINNING BUT FAILING TO LEAD He rebuked the teachers of the law for failing to lead their converts after winning them: “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” [Matthew 23:15]. Convincing someone to believe in your leadership is important; however, providing positive leadership to the convert is more important. The responsibilities of a leader begin with a first step of convincing others to accept him/her as a leader and continues with several larger and more consequential steps of providing positive leadership. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for failing in the second task after succeeding in the first.
SURFACE VALUE VERSUS INTRINSIC VALUE He rebuked the teachers of the law for emphasizing the worldly value of things but neglecting their spiritual significance: “Woe to you, blind guides! 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.’” [Matthew 23:16]. Also, he gave an example with their value for gifts brought to the altar, which they considered to have greater meaning than the altar itself.
Every action can be associated with an intrinsic value and a surface value, and the responsibilities of a leader include understanding the intrinsic value and promoting its significance more than the surface value. For example, consider the actions of a person that offers a car and a second person that offers a ride to alleviate a third person’s transportation needs. The first person offered a greater surface value than the second but each of the two recognized a need and did what they could to provide for it. Each responded to a call to compassion as we discussed in a previous bible study under Call to Compassion. The responsibility of a leader is to understand and promote the intrinsic value of things and events. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for focusing on the surface value and neglecting the intrinsic.
CUSTOMARY RELIGIOUS PRACTICES He rebuked the teachers of the law for focusing on customary religious practices while neglecting the essence of worship that is the basis for the customary practice: “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” [Matthew 23:23].
The customary religious practices evolved to support worship in order to accomplish the worship objectives of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He rebuked them for focusing on the practice while neglecting the objective. We can see an example in the behavior of the synagogue leader that was interested in enforcing the law of the Sabbath but at the same time forgot about compassion for the crippled woman [Luke 13:10–17]. Another example comes from the leaders criticizing a man for carrying his mat on a Sabbath after he had just been healed from a thirty-eight year infirmity: “and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’” [John 5:10]. A leader needs to be cognizant of the purpose of each law, regulation, or custom and should ensure his/her interpretations, rulings, or enforcement provide the followers opportunity to advance toward the purpose. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for failing in this responsibility.
MEANINGLESS SYMBOLISM He rebuked the teachers of the law for substituting meaningless symbolism for repentance. He rebuked their attitude to sinful practices that occurred in previous generations and could continue through future generations: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘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’” [Matthew 23:29–31]. He continued the rebuke through verse 34 as follows: “Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” He rebuked them for promoting symbolic gestures to condemn the sin of previous generations without any real effort to advance society toward repentance from such sinful practices. This rebuke applies today to any leadership that focuses on promoting symbolic gestures without seeking or advocating a real understanding of the significance of the gestures.
Summary of What We Learned
We discuss the responsibilities of leaders and followers through a study of Christ’s rebuke of the teachers of the law in the Seven Woes. He advised the people to honor and heed the teachers but to abhor their lifestyle. He rebuked the teachers for not living according to their interpretations and teaching of the law but did not question their authority. We learn the following leadership and followership responsibilities based on his teaching.
Our responsibilities as followers include the following.
- Respect the law and customs.
- Recognize and respect people that have authority to interpret, teach, or enforce the law and customs.
- Respect and obey their exercise of the authority.
- However, we should not emulate their living if we judge that they do not live according to the rules and principles they teach.
The responsibilities of a leader include the following.
- Provide valid leadership based on the constituting authority for your position.
- Establish and follow transparent conditions for equal application of the applicable laws and regulations to everyone, leader and follower alike.
- Refrain from living for display or focusing on seeking admiration or personal honor.
- Refrain from actions or behavior that could mislead followers.
- Provide positive leadership to retain confidence of the converted and win over those that have not accepted him/her as leader.
- Understand and promote the intrinsic value of things and events and refrain from undue attention to the surface value.
- Be cognizant of the purpose of each law, regulation, or custom and provide followers opportunities to advance toward the purpose.
- Reduce focus on symbolic gestures but instead seek and advocate a real understanding that contributes to advancing people toward the purpose for the leadership position.
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