The Tolkien quote hit me for I too have suffered in my life from church leadership. For years I have wanted to take up pitchforks and torches and storm the doors of various churches from my past. And in recent years I have quoted Matt 23:3 often. As I read the essay the weight of God’s grace hit me. So I am working through my past as an act of will, inspired by love. — Brian
Readers’ Choice (Originally published July 13, 2016)
[Jesus instructed,] “Do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.” — Matthew 23.3
Jesus was fantastically under-impressed with the religious leaders of his day. And yet this didn’t diminish his love for God, faithfulness to live according to the Scriptures, or passion for the Church in the slightest.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible, highlights the reasons behind Christ’s frustration and the way he resets the conversation on failed leadership:
Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules… They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help.
Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’
Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do.
Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son who was thinking of leaving the church, confessed, “I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests.” Even still, the elder Tolkien revealed, he would not leave the church over failed clergy.
His reasoning is profoundly similar to the argument Christ makes: “For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more—remembering my own sins and follies.”
Leaders of the church fail because they are not the leader of the church. They are, like you and I, fellow sinners and sufferers who sit under the authority of Christ. So how should we respond when church leaders let us down? By grace. This is, of course, the heart of Christianity—and a choice—as Tolkien reminds, “faith is an act of will, inspired by love.”
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