In the digital age, stories of fallen pastors go viral—documented and distributed to the masses via social media, YouTube, podcasts, and online exposés. The more prominent the leader, the louder the outcry. The seedier the sins, the larger the audience.
Exposing religious hucksters is right. It honors victims, holds wayward leaders accountable, and challenges leadership models rooted more in celebrity than servanthood. But while uncovering abusive hypocrisy is a sure step toward justice, it’s a crucial first step, not a full solution.
Hypocrisy is a wrecking ball, smashing souls in its path, leaving disoriented saints staggering through the rubble of betrayal. Counterfeit shepherds create calloused sheep. In response, some deconstruct their way to deconversion, calling it quits with Christianity. For those who stick around, determined to find healing in the church rather than outside it, anger, distrust, and self-doubt linger: Why trust a pastor ever again?
Jadedness consumes countless justice-seekers. Indicting spiritual abusers isn’t enough; we’re also called to be first responders, bandaging bruised brothers and sisters, pointing them to Christ’s trustworthiness. This is why I love Matthew 23, in which Jesus fiercely rebukes the Pharisees’ hypocrisy.
In several key ways, Matthew 23 teaches us through three lessons that Jesus—not headlines—should shape our response to hypocrisy.
1. Hypocrisy in leaders doesn’t negate obedience in us.
Jesus holds nothing back in Matthew 23, calling the Pharisees “sons of hell” and “blind guides,” yet surprisingly his opening words instruct listeners to obey their teaching:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matt. 23:2–3).
Jesus’s point is clear, if countercultural: Every disciple is to obey biblical truth, regardless of who teaches it. Perplexingly, bad pastors often teach good things. Jesus isn’t telling us to be indifferent about pastoral phonies—his scathing critique later proves that. But Jesus knows we’re prone to throw out the baby (faith-fortifying truth) with the bathwater (faith-crushing hypocrisy). Even when sin nullifies someone’s ministry, God’s Word should never be nullified (Isa. 55:9–11). As commentator Michael J. Wilkins explains:
Any and all accurate interpretation of Scripture is to be obeyed. The Pharisees had many good things to say, and their doctrine was closer to Jesus’s on many crucial issues than to other groups. . . . Jesus does not condemn the pursuit of righteousness itself; rather, he criticizes only certain attitudes and practices expressed within the effort to be righteous.
When a spiritual authority deceives, it’s tempting to dismiss not only the person, but everything they taught too. It feels safer to ditch everything, doctrine included. But this creates cynics who perceive all spiritual authority as abusive and any call to obedience as legalism. God wants us to be tough on tyrants but tender to his Word. To abandon truth is to lay down our strongest weapon against evil. Let’s stay armed.
2. God hates hypocrisy more than we do.
Matthew 23, along with all Scripture (see Ezek. 34), shows God’s anger when spiritual leaders mislead and mistreat his people. Christ has zero sympathy for covering up or minimizing practices that slander his name and batter his bride. His holy fury is intense, not indifferent—specific, not ambiguous.
Even when sin nullifies someone’s ministry, God’s Word should never be nullified.
In Matthew 23:4–36, Jesus slings some eyebrow-raising rebukes at the Pharisees: hypocrites, children of hell, blind guides, blind fools, blind men, greedy, self-indulgent, whitewashed tombs, wicked, snakes, brood of vipers. Far from sophomoric insults, these words reveal Christ’s love for his people. Like a parent telling off someone trying to harm a kid, intensity shows intimacy.
Love is also evident in the specificity of Jesus’s anger. With razor-sharp arguments, he prosecutes the Pharisees with precision, as Wilkins notes in his commentary on this passage: they lay legalistic burdens on people (v. 4), show their piety pretentiously (v. 5), exploit their position in ways that undermine God’s authority (vv. 6–12), play religious games (vv. 15–22), major on minors (vv. 23–34), value tradition over God (vv. 25–28), and stifle righteous voices with their own (vv. 29–32).
Jesus makes it clear: those who presume on his name, at the expense of his people, do so at their peril. Justice will come.
3: God longs to heal hypocrites.
With righteous wrath pulsing through his veins, Jesus’s last words in Matthew 23 are striking:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (v. 37)
This is remarkable—God rebukes hypocrites, but he also wants to heal them. When they reject his grace, as they often do, he laments. Do we? Are we willing to emulate Jesus’s anger and his compassion? All Christians undergo the same metamorphosis: enemies of God made friends of God by the grace of God (Rom. 5:10). God’s grace, if firmly rooted in us, longs to see it take root in others.
Jesus’s approach to confronting hypocrites certainly conflicts with the spirit of our age. To follow his radical example requires avoiding two extremes.
The first extreme is arrogance—anger unhitched from humility. Again, we should be angry about hypocrisy; but as Christians, we know “righteous” indignation quickly degrades into unrighteous rage, fueled more by pride than justice. Godly anger involves restraint, trusting him for justice. Such restraint contradicts cancel culture. Like all emotions, we submit our anger to God, taking responsible action to defend victims and dethrone manipulators, but in a way that’s righteous, not reckless.
The second extreme is false humility, which refuses to call out hypocrisy because “we’re all hypocrites, after all.” Masquerading as nonjudgmental, this mindset ignores Jesus’s clear teaching that church discipline is necessary (Matt.18:15–19). Paul dubs himself the “worst of sinners” but also rebukes Peter for refusing to eat with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11–21). If Jesus’s anger in Matthew 23 teaches us anything, it’s that some situations require us to speak out against hypocrisy, loudly. If we refuse to rebuke when the occasion demands it (Luke 17:3), our silence is cowardice, not humility.
One of my favorite seminary professors challenged us to read Matthew 23 every year, and I’ve taken him up on the challenge. We’re all tempted to leverage leadership selfishly. May fear of the Lord keep us from foolishness.